The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Our Grand Tour of Texas continued last week, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would include a cosmological dialogue about “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and the Magellan Giant Telescope. I had forgotten about Garland’s interest in astronomy and that years ago he and Mollie had given the McDonald Observatory some money to underwrite its operation.

I’ve spoken of this before, but my friend Garland is larger than life. His interests span a broad spectrum that includes Garcia Lorca’s poetry and Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the evaluation of insurance risk and mathematical puzzles like the Collatz Conjecture. He loves Mollie, math, astronomy, cosmology, politics and his beloved Texas.

When we began planning this Grand Tour, he was excited to share the McDonald Observatory with us. It was on our route, a short drive from Marfa, and the prospect launched him into a monologue about how looking at the stars is all about looking back in time – billions of years back in time – in some cases. He was energized and told me he would give the observatory a call to see if something could be arranged. He wasn’t sure they would go out of their way, but he would call and see.

I could have predicted it, but the folks in charge at the McDonald pulled out all the stops. The director arranged for a personal tour, dinner (green enchiladas) at the Astronomers’ Lodge, an overnight stay at the guest residence, and reservations for the outdoor Star Show that night.

On our arrival, under a perfectly cloudless night sky we were treated to the director’s laser Star Show followed by an opportunity to view different sectors of the heavens through smaller telescopes set up to show us what an astronomer might see – quite a remarkable experience.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep at 6,790’, we woke to a stunning view of the West Texas landscape. Really beautiful from our perch atop the Davis Mountains.

I could have stayed there all day, but after breakfast it was on to the next event, a two-hour tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope with one of the astronomers and the chief engineer. While the Hobby-Eberly is the smaller of the two McDonald telescopes, it has been upgraded to probe the furthest reaches of the universe in order to unravel the mystery of “dark energy,” a theoretical force thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. I don’t understand it but apparently I’m not alone. Astronomers posit its existence but don’t know much about it.

Touring Texas has been revealing. It’s a world unto itself. Everything about it. In many ways it’s still the Wild West, but within its boundaries are natural wonders, elite universities, cutting-edge art installations, a world famous musical competition, and scientists reaching for the stars. Later on, in Austin, Gar and Mollie invited Dr. Frank Bash, the former director of the McDonald Observatory and current Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Texas to join us for dinner.

I know almost nothing about astronomy, so it was a intimidating to sit down with him. He couldn’t have been nicer. It turns out he knows a lot about airplanes and wanted to know which ones I had flown and whether I knew the story behind the design of the 747. I did… and so did he. He’s a huge fan of aviation and over dinner, much to my relief, we talked airplanes and never probed the mysteries of outer space.

Frank’s friendship with Garland began 30 years ago and was based on a mutual interest in astronomy, but it eventually led them to an off the grid “scientific” adventure in South America. At the time, Gar and Mollie were planning their own adventure by flying their Cessna Caravan around South America. In the process they agreed to pick up Frank in Peru and fly him south to Chile to reconoiter sites for a REALLY BIG telescope.

Today, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile is under construction with an expected completion date in 2025. When completed it will be the world’s largest telescope, a joint venture with partners ranging from the University of Texas to research institutions in Australia, Brazil, South Korea, and Chile.

M and I feel privileged to have met Frank and jointly share a friendship with our larger than life friends, Garland and Mollie Lasater. Texas is big – in land mass and personalities.

Next stop: Marathon, Texas


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Marfa, Texas

Following the Civil War, the west was untamed and expanding. On the Texas frontier the saying was “West of the Pecos there is no law. West of El Paso there is no God.” This was the wild west of Judge Roy Bean, the Buffalo Soldiers, and Quanah Parker and his Comanche warriors.

Today, little more than 100 years later, the biggest little attraction in this vast high desert landscape is Marfa, population 1747. Lying 400 miles west of San Antonio and 200 miles east of El Paso, Marfa is a magnet for fans of the cutting edge minimalist art of Donald Judd, the New Yorker who came here in 1971 intent on taking his art out of the galleries and museums in order to implement a larger vision.

Last month, on our Grand Tour of Texas, we pulled our big white Suburban up to the Hotel Paisano after a disappointing visit to Huecos Tanks State Park where we waited for hours to see what turned out to be graffiti-covered pictographs. Nevertheless, undeterred, the Lasaters and Bernards were ripe for a couple days of modern art in the middle of nowhere.

It seems Marfa was destined to be an artistic destination from the beginning. According to Darwin Spearing’s Roadside Geology of Texas, the town was given its name by the wife of Southern Pacific Railway’s chief engineer. She was reading Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov as she passed through town, and Marfa was the name of one of the Karamazov servants. If you don’t like that one, other sources claim the town was named for Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff. Either way, this little West Texas town has an established literary pedigree.

For a small town with literary antecedents and world famous art, it’s not surprising that its hotel has a star laden past as well. The Hotel Paisano broke ground only days before the 1929 stock market crash and it’s history is full of boom/bust stories. In 1955, it was headquarters for the cast and crew of the classic movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and today its hallways are lined with large photos from the film’s archives. Shortly after the Giant crew left town, the Paisano fell on hard times but was saved from demolition in 1978 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places .

Today, the hotel is completely renovated and restored to its original state with tile floors, a courtyard fountain and lots of cowboy and Giant movie memorabilia.

On our first morning in town, following coffee in the lobby , we met our guide, Sterry Butcher, a local who works for the Chinati Foundation and writes a column for Texas Monthly. She’s the real deal, and because the foundation is closed on Monday and Tuesday we arranged to have her give the four of us a private tour of Donald Judd’s world at Chinati.

The town’s modern day reputation is due to Donald Judd, the New York artist who “discovered” Marfa in 1971 and moved there permanently in 1973. There, he partnered with a non-profit foundation to purchase an abandoned Army base, including its buildings, as the locus for his art – first, a series of 15 concrete boxes arranged along a north-south axis in the field adjoining the Army barracks and then 100 milled-aluminum boxes arranged in two remodeled artillery storage structures nearby.

Donald Judd died in 1994, but by then he had established his site plan and begun populating it with the art of his expansive vision.

While it’s true that Marfa’s artistic reputation is due Judd’s vision, that vision was not entirely self-referential. He admired the work of many other artists and envisioned an environment in which his friends could exhibit their work in discreet spaces on the same property. He accomplished that by renovating several U-shaped barracks buildings and inviting several friends – Dan Flavin, Bridget Riley, Carl Andre, Robert Irwin, Claes Oldenburg and others – to each take a building and create a work of art.

Here are examples from Bridget Riley, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin:

The founder’s work has been carried forward by two cooperating foundations – The Donald Judd Foundation displays his work in two downtown buildings known as The Block, and the Chinati Foundation, located on the former D.A. Russell Army Base at the edge of town is where the concrete boxes and barracks installations are located.

As you might imagine, in a town devoted to high concept art there are also a couple of good restaurants. On the day we were there, Anthony Bourdain was filming his Parts Unknown series on CNN. We just missed him at the Hotel Saint George bar and later at the Chinati site where M heard his crew was considering us as extras.

Anthony Bourdain obviously knew Marfa had food worth chasing down, and though we didn’t cross paths with him again we found a local bistro called Cochineal that I’m sure he visited. It’s a busy place and we were turned away on the Night One but able to get a reservation for Night Two. They serve main courses too but most of the diners choose to share tapas plates with an assortment ranging from duck breast to chili shrimp and roasted beet salad. Delicious.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the hype, but as we were leaving the restaurant Gar suggested we drive out of town to a location where locals claim an atmospheric phenomenon known as Marfa Lights can be seen on special occasions. I thought we would pull off the road somewhere and scan the horizon but was surprised to find a parking lot full of cars and a structure in place to accommodate the many curious viewers. We were unsuccessful that night but Sterry, our guide, claimed to have seen them many times. Maybe we’ll get lucky next time.

Next stop – McDonald Observatory just north of Fort Davis for a tour and Star Show.

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Texas – The Grand Tour Begins

The portrait over this bookcase is a good likeness of my friend, Garland Miller Lasater, Jr. It’s a wonderful picture painted by his friend, the artist Scott Gentling, but no painting can begin to capture his larger than life Texas persona. I didn’t stage the photo; I just took what was there but the books beneath the portrait speak clearly to the scope of his interests – art, travel, science, philosophy, nature and other cultures.

What you can’t see in the portrait’s background are a few fine pencil lines of physics diagrams and mathematical formulas – two of Gar’s passionate interests. This is not an ordinary (if there is such a thing) Texan, and though the contents of Jimmy Nelson’s book in the stack on the top shelf has nothing to do with us, Before They Pass Away is an apt description of the reason we needed to get together.

I hadn’t seen Garland in over ten years, and Marilynn had never met him or his wife, Mollie (left), a force all her own and the main event in a future blog. Standby for Mollie’s story and how old Texas blends with the Ivy League and cutting edge educational philanthropic commitment.

Over the years, Gar and I had written, talked, and stayed in touch but hadn’t spent any real time together. We’ve been friends since we were young Marine Corps fighter pilots, but at 80, our fighter pilot days are behind us – way behind us – and we don’t have a lot of time left to tell the old stories or make up new ones.

Gar suggested a Grand Tour of Texas. We would meet in El Paso in the far corner of West Texas and work our way across the state, seeing the sights, natural and man-made, until we ended up at their home in Fort Worth. He proposed we rent a big SUV, buy four chairs and a table for roadside relaxation, a cooler with water and snacks for refreshment, and a Jambox for the soundtrack. I suggested Jerry Jeff Walker and he offered up Bruch and Dvorak – an eclectic mix – just like the four of us.


M and I were jazzed and El Paso seemed like the perfect place to start, since it’s the ancestral home to the paternal side of Marilynn’s family. We decided to fly-in a day before the Lasaters to check out the town and do a little family recon. M had the address of the house her father grew up in and a picture of her grandparents’ gravesite, and she wanted to see both as part of the quest to know more about her family heritage.

We dropped our bags at the hotel, Ubered over to the cemetery, and with the help of a groundskeeper found the family plot that included both her grandparents and great grandparents (below). It was neatly tended, caused a little emotional hiccup, and closed the loop for M. An interesting aside here is that all the men in her family worked for the railroad in one capacity or another, and Sydney, her great-grandfather, was an engineer who died of steam burns when his engine overturned on Christmas Day in 1923. It sounds like the folk tale of Casey Jones and the Wabash Cannonball, almost too dramatic to be true.

Following our visit to the cemetery, we opted to have our first on-site Tex-Mex dinner in the large open-air bar at the Hotel Indigo. M had a margarita and I couldn’t resist a shot of tequila and a beer. The guac was perfect, the lime juicy, and the corn tortillas freshly pressed and starchy.

Imagine my surprise when the check arrived and my tequila shot came in at $79.80.  One and a half ounces of tequila for $79.80? It had to be a mistake, so I chased down the bar manager to get it corrected and was told I should have asked the server the price. When we ordered I noted there were no prices on the bar menu but when I asked about the brand, Dragones Joven, all the waitress said was that it was “a very good tequila.” And it was. Crazy. Wouldn’t you think she’d have done a little caveat emptor if the price was going to be the same as a good rental car? Alas, as Billy Pilgrim said when Dresden was burning, “So it goes.”

The following morning, despite my tequila buyer’s remorse, we decided to check out the local scene while waiting for the Lasaters to arrive. We discovered downtown El Paso to be an uncrowded mixture of old (Plaza of the Alligators) and new architecture (El Paso Museum of Art) and very walkable. We especially liked the Plaza de los Lagatros, a memorial to the time when the pond in the plaza had real alligators swimming around to the amusement of the locals.

Our Grand Tour of Texas was shaping up, and with the arrival of our traveling companions the excitement was building. After a Tex-Mex reunion dinner at L and J’s Café and a good night’s sleep we were ready to go. Gar and I provisioned the Suburban at Walmart, picked up Mollie and Marilynn, and set off for our first road destination – Marfa – the trendiest little art town in the middle of nowhere Texas.






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Chaos Keeps the Guns Blazing

“Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. These phenomena are often described by fractal mathematics, which captures the infinite complexity of nature.” (

James A. Yorke, Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, is the man who coined “chaos” as a mathematical term along with T.Y. Li in their 1975 paper, Period Three Implies Chaos. He’s no fan of The Donald’s but says his behavior is not chaos. “It might be better to call it hyperchaos. Alluding to the classic billiard ball analogy used to describe chaos theory he says, “Chaos is bounded in some sense. You know the billiard balls are going to stay on the table, but they careen around on the table,” he said, adding that it seems different with Trump. With Trump, the chaos is in many different directions. Seriously.”

Here’s how the billiard balls have rolled around the White House recently: porn star Stormy Daniels sues DJT on Wednesday, Gary Cohn resigns on Tuesday, Sam Nunnberg spills his guts in a media blitz on Monday, steel and aluminum tariffs announced on Friday, Carl Icahn’s sells steel stocks just before the tariff announcement, DJT imagines himself President for life, Hope Hicks resigns, General McMaster’s on the verge, Chief of Staff lies, Jared Kushner uses his position to finance 666 and retaliate against Qatar, Rob Porter beats his wives but isn’t fired until the pictures arrive, DJT meets with the NRA after the AR-15 slaughter of 17 high school students and teachers at Margory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and suggests that arming teachers will solve the problem of gun violence in schools.

C’mon folks… Focus. School children are being killed and the chaos and disruption in Washington is destroying our democracy while we’re all glued to our TV’s waiting to hear the porn star’s creepy revelations about the President’s junk. I can’t do anything about the President’s smarmy behavior or Rob Porter’s spousal abuse, but we can all do something to prevent fellow Americans from killing each other. It’s criminal to wait for more school children, churchgoers, nightclub patrons, and office workers to be gunned down when we can actually do something to slow the epidemic of mass murders. Last year, more Americans died gun-related deaths than all the military combat deaths since the end of the Vietnam War. So, let’s do something about it.

If we’re worried about terrorism we should start looking at the NRA. It would be hard to find a more exemplary case of domestic terrorism. For decades the National Rifle Association has stonewalled all attempts to regulate the manufacture, sale, storage, transfer, or purchase of firearms in America.

In 1996, after a number of public health studies showed that having a gun in the house increased the risk of homicide or suicide the CDC suggested guns be treated as a public health problem, like cigarettes, and proposed an informational public campaign be mounted to inform the public of the risks. The NRA stepped in and convinced Congress to pass a law prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control” and keep it from gathering data on gun related deaths.

In 2005 the NRA flexed its muscle again and Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a law preventing firearms purchasers from bringing lawsuits against manufacturers and dealers when crimes are committed with their products. Then, in of January 2016, again at the urging of the NRA, President Trump rescinded an Executive Order that kept mentally ill persons from purchasing guns but failed to prohibit those on the US government’s “No Fly” list from doing so. It looks like the Second Amendment protects crazies and terrorists while the rest of us are living in a Code Red world.

When will our elected officials find the courage to address the deaths of the 17 innocent young people gunned down with a military-style semi-automatic weapon in an Florida school? Or the 26 kids at Sandy Hook, the 49 club patrons in Orlando, the 14 co-workers in San Bernardino, the 58 concert goers in Las Vegas, and the 26 parishoners in a Sutherland Springs Texas church? The common denominator is guns and federal, state, and local officials need to act. Yes, all of the shooters were mentally ill, but stop the bullshit. If the mentally ill have assault rifles they can kill a lot more people quickly than if they have a knife, a handgun or a bolt-action hunting rifle. Elected officials need to stop drinking the NRA Kool Aid and taking their money. The NRA is an unindicted co-conspirator in every mass shooting in the US until background checks are universal and assault weapons are unavailable to civilians.

There are 30,000 gun-related deaths in America EVERY year. Only a small percentage involve an AR-15 or related military style weapon, but civilians don’t need military weapons to protect themselves. These are killing machines and have no place in a civilian home. The Supreme Court has made it clear that the Bill of Rights, including the 2nd Amendment, is subject to reasonable regulation and restraint. I can’t drive a car without a taking a written test and demonstrating competence behind the wheel. I also need to show ownership evidence of a liability insurance policy before I am licensed. Let’s make it at least that hard to buy a gun. Let’s have minimum age and require all purchasers – whether in a gun shop, at a gun show, on the internet, or a private sale – to undergo a complete background check with a reasonable waiting period.

In the Supreme Court case of Schenck vs. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” There are no “absolute” rights in the Bill of Rights. The Court has recognized that “reasonable regulation” of the guaranteed freedoms is permissible, and that includes the 2nd Amendment as well as the other enumerated freedoms.

The students of Margory Stoneman Douglas High School are doing something we adults have been unable to do – bringing the debate over gun control into the sunlight. They are outspoken and apolitical. They want action and on March 24th they plan to march in Washington DC to show the White House and Congress that it’s time to take on the terrorists at the NRA and enact sensible regulations. Congress and the state legislatures need to step up to protect us from needless gun-related deaths – accidents, homicides, suicides, and mass shootings. There are an estimated 300,000,000 guns in circulation in America today. We aren’t going to confiscate them as the NRA tells the paranoids in its membership, but we could, like the Australians, start with a few sensible restrictions and a modest buy-back program for assault weapons.

On May 21st the Alliance for Gun Responsibility will hold its 6th annual fundraising luncheon in Seattle. M and I, as founding members of the Alliance, encourage you to attend and add your weight to the rising tide of those demanding reasonable, responsible legislation to protect our kids and ourselves from needless gun violence. We’re in it for the long haul. We’re not discouraged. The tobacco industry fought the overwhelming evidence of smoking danger for years, but eventually the truth and public health concerns prevailed. Guns are just as much a public health problem as cigarettes and there is ample evidence to support that despite the NRA’s efforts to suppress it. It’s my hope that good policy and common sense will prevail so that we and our children and grandchildren can feel safer as we make our way in the schools, in our churches, at concerts, on the streets, or wherever we find ourselves.

Peace be with you.

Bar graph from

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Presidential Portraits

Last week the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, unveiled the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama (above). The former President and First Lady chose two African-American artists to portray their images, and though their unconventional artistry raised a few eyebrows and drew some criticism they barely rippled the waters compared to other news coming out of Washington last week.

In office, the Obamas were not perfect but I’d give anything to have them back. Mr. Obama may have failed us when he didn’t observe the “red line” in Syria, but he always projected the character, intelligence, judgment, language, and respect for others that we expect from the President of the United States.

Speaking apolitically, the Obama portraits are fascinating – unexpected depictions of the most charismatic and attractive residents of the White House since Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Mr. Obama is particularly idiosyncratic. Wiley has been a favorite of mine since the Seattle Art Museum mounted a large exhibit of his work in May of 2016. His beautiful photo-realistic paintings jar viewer sensibilities by juxtaposing African-American celebrities or street people into reimagined classical paintings or unusual portrait poses.

At the unveiling ceremony Mr. Obama joked that he tried to negotiate with the artist for less gray hair and smaller ears, but Wiley wasn’t swayed. He does respect the President’s roots by incorporating pikake flowers representing Hawaii, African blue lilies to signify his father’s birthplace in Kenya, and red chrysanthemums the city flower of his hometown, Chicago, in the background foliage. It says a lot about Mr. Obama that he had the confidence to select an artist as wildly unconventional as Kehinde Wiley to memorialize him and stand with the portraits of all the other presidents in the National Portrait Gallery.

I’m equally impressed by Mrs. Obama’s distinctive portrait. The First Lady’s unknown and unlikely painter of choice, Amy Sherald, is only 44 years old, had a heart transplant at 39, and until a few years ago was waiting tables in Baltimore. As Mr. Wiley’s paid homage to the Mr. Obama’s roots, Ms. Sherald honors Mrs. Obama’s sense of fashion, depicting her in an elegant, high-style geometrically patterned dress. Both artists chose to show their subjects in pensive, serious, non-smiling poses and Mrs. Obama’s gray skin tone with a solid blue background enhances that affect as well.

Marilynn and I visited the National Portrait Gallery two years ago. Only a few blocks off the Washington Mall and not nearly as busy as the National Gallery, it’s well worth the excursion. I’d make the trip again just to see the new portraits. I love the idea that they’re back and larger than life (7’ to be exact). My grandchildren, Ben and Lucie, loved the Wiley show in Seattle. I can’t remember if we took them once or twice, jazzed and had a ton of fun dancing to the whimsy in his paintings.

Having seen the Obama portraits, I’m trying to conjure up the next presidential portrait. What pose Mr. Trump would choose? This is one possibility, an actual photo, in the gold-encrusted throne room at Trump Tower:

I’m sure he loves that pose, but here are two other possibilities:

However the next round turns out, consider how the pair below contrast in style to that of the poseur who took their place. I love their new portraits and they get my vote as the most natural, admirable, and inspirational presidential couple in decades, and I think their official portraits capture those qualities. Bravo, Barack and Michelle.

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