“The Martian” called the newsroom this week

I was on deadline this week when a newsroom colleague popped up from her cubicle and said, “Hey Giles, Mark Watney is on the phone. He says there’s water on Mars. Wanna go live with him?”

I knew right away she had to be joking.

Mark Watney on the phone?

Not possible.

Mentioning a man named Mark Watney in the same breath as Mars was obviously a reference to the fictional hero in Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian.” Even in the middle of deadline pressure, I picked up on that fairly quickly. Fictional characters can’t make real-life phones calls, even ones who are problem-solving NASA astronauts with improbable survival stories that are made into major motion pictures.

The odds are much better that “Star Trek’s” William Shatner would call the newsroom. He may never have stepped foot in space while playing the fictional Captain Kirk, but at least he’s a real person who is on THE SAME PLANET!

In the little time I had left before the final newscast of my shift, I decided my colleague was just having some last-minute fun with me, an impression that was reinforced when she laughed at the joke and returned to her conversation with “Watney.”

Besides, I had just finished listening to Weir’s book on my commute, and with the movie in theaters this weekend, new developments about water on Mars seemed to be too much of a coincidence.

Without another thought on the matter, I put the finishing touches on the news I planned to present and headed into the studio.

It was only afterward that I discovered my failure to make like Mark Watney and look beyond the impossible. When I got back out in the newsroom there was an alert on my phone from the “New York Times” saying scientists are pretty sure there is liquid water on Mars.

They haven’t found anything like a lake or a flowing stream stocked with Martian trout, but a new analysis of photos taken by a NASA orbiter has space enthusiasts buzzing.

The photos show dark streaks down Martian slopes. Scientists say they are seasonal and are the best evidence yet of moisture from liquid H2O, although the water is said to be on the briny side.

“You weren’t kidding,” I said to no one in particular.

Not entirely, anyway.

As it turned out, “Watney” was really one of our science reporters, presumably calling to coordinate coverage of NASA’s announcement, the one about liquid water on Mars that I had just whiffed on.

I told myself later that I would have been hard pressed to fit it into my newscast, that the call came too late for me to reasonably include it without courting an on-air disaster. But for a space buff like me, missing a chance to help report on a story like that was disappointing.

Maybe I’ll take it more seriously the next time I’m told Mark Watney is on the phone.

Our cat is not having a good day


This is our ornery cat Skitty. She is not happy this evening because:

a) she had to go to the vet today.

b) she peed in her pet carrier on the way there.

c) not only did the vet make her suffer through an exam and annual shots, but his assistants gave her a quick bath, too. Plus, they disinfected her carrier. I appreciated it. She didn’t.


d) Skitty still stunk when she got home, so I held her down while she howled her way through another bath.

Now, our normally hungry kitty is so pissed she’s refusing to eat.

Tomorrow’s another day, kid.

Homo naledi and me

Last week’s news out of South Africa reminds me of something my mom once pointed out: that I’d be happy living in a cave as long as I had a remote control and a jar of my beloved peanut butter.

She’s not that far off.

I would only add a plush recliner from which to wield the remote and a spoon for the peanut butter.

My mom may think she raised a modern-day caveman, but if I ever decide to chuck it all, at least I wouldn’t necessarily be roughing it. And, she might be relieved to know that I’m heeding her admonishment to keep my fingers out of the peanut butter jar because “someone else might want to make a sandwich!”

I thought of my mother’s assessment of my not-so-sophisticated habits when I got out of bed the morning the South African discovery was made public.

Being a journalist, I customarily check to see what’s been making news while I’ve been happily unconscious. My first stop is usually my phone, mainly because it’s been nagging at me to get up. It doubles as my alarm clock. After I shut off the alarm, I start scrolling through the alerts it received while I was asleep.

The first alert to catch my eye that morning was the story from South Africa, where scientists say they’ve found the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species related to humans.

My curiosity was sparked, so I checked the website of my employer, NPR. Sure enough, the discovery was prominently displayed at the top of the page.

With funding from the National Geographic Society, scientists have uncovered a trove of more than 1,550 fossils in a nearly impossible to reach part of a cave popular with spelunkers. And, they believe there’s more waiting for them.

Naturally, science has more work to do to figure out what the old fossil bones are saying. NPR spoke to a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University who said as much.

In the meantime, I’ve come up with some questions of my own.

What would scientists far in the future find if they should somehow think the remains of my house important enough to excavate?

Would they run across my bones?

And if they did, would they think them a significant discovery?

I like to think so.

After all, they’d have to wonder why a Neanderthal was using a spoon to eat peanut butter in a recliner long after his species was supposed to be extinct.

My mom would be so proud.

Why lying around the house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anymore

Pro-tip: if you’re tired of your teenage kid hogging the family car, don’t put any gas in it.

I know this move works.

I’ve field tested it.

Earlier this week, our 17-year-old son came back into the house shortly after he was supposed to leave for school. He had an annoyed expression on his face because the car he wanted to use was short on fuel.

I was slightly surprised he even noticed. Teenage boys aren’t known for paying much attention to anything except their stomachs.

Which is why it’s a good thing gas gauges are located where even they can’t miss them.

Still, it was either dumb luck our son noticed or he is simply growing up and thinking ahead instead of learning from my dubious example.

In any case, he feared the car would be running on fumes by the time he made it to school. And when I followed him back out to the garage to see for myself, I discovered he wasn’t far off.

I told him he could probably make it, but that he’d have to fill it up before returning home. Otherwise, he might end up stranded on the side of the interstate waiting for the courtesy patrol to save the day.

Then I sensed an opportunity.

I pleaded poverty.

I made a show of checking my wallet for the cash I knew I didn’t have – because, who carries cash anymore?

I also pointed out that the clock was ticking, that he didn’t have time to pull up to a pump before school started. I suggested leaving the car with me made better sense. That way I could fill it up while he was in school in case he wanted to use it later.

I then finished with this coup de grace: I told him that he was just going to have suck it up and ride with me when I took his younger sister. Thankfully, she is not yet old enough to compete with the rest of us for the car keys.

I felt sort of guilty for depriving him of the car. After all, I could have easily handed over the plastic I customarily use to spend our money.

But here’s the thing: I wanted easy access to a car again, if only for one day.

The problem at our house these days is a simple one – too many drivers and not enough cars.

When our son takes one of our two cars to school, I’m left stranded at home because my wife needs to take the other one to work.

This arrangement generally works because of the odd hours I keep. I make my living at night and on weekends, which means I’m home a great deal during the day.

At first I welcomed being stranded. With no one around and no way to get around, I figured I could finally get my busy nap schedule back on track. Or maybe stream some old “Star Trek” episodes that I haven’t seen in a while … at least, not since the previous school year let out for the summer.

But I was wrong.

The truth is, I’ve actually been losing sleep ever since the new school year began. And streaming anything is beginning to bore me, even “Star Trek.”

All because I’m not free to come and go as I please.

In short, lying around the house isn’t quite as satisfying when it’s forced upon you.

Sometimes a guy just needs to get off the couch and drive.

Even if it means tricking your kid into leaving the car with you.

Somebody said it and now the deer are keeping me up at night

What I’m about to do might upset The Journal’s reporters and editors. I might even end up banned from the paper because of it.

But judging by the number of big stories that have kept newsrooms hopping this summer, I think it’s safe to defy one of journalism’s unwritten rules: never, ever point out that “it’s a slow news day.”

Journalists consider that a jinx. And if by chance someone seems close to actually saying it out loud, a quick thinking colleague will try to stifle it with a stern “don’t say it” admonishment.

We’ve got enough to struggle with most days without a feckless coworker causing a big story to break at the end of our shift, or even worse, at the end of a week preceding a few vacation days. There’s nothing like putting in some extra time when you’re looking forward to a few days at the beach, or in my case, not catching any fish on a trip to Canaan Valley.

Journalists don’t generally remark on this often (because it involves the “slow” no-no), but the arrival of summer seems to bring a corresponding lull in the news business. The breather might have something to do with laziness induced by heat and humidity, but I suspect it’s at least partly because newsmakers take vacations, too.

This summer, though, has been different. There have been so many big stories lately that I’m beginning to think somebody in a newsroom somewhere inadvertently let the “S” word slip, dooming the rest of us to frantic days, late nights, bad coffee and cold pizza.

The evidence seems clear.

Take the major stories of this week alone. We’ve had to buckle down to cover (a) the nuclear deal with Iran (b) the confusing twists and turns in the Greek Debt crisis (c) the controversial release of beloved author Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” and (d) the latest astonishing photos of Pluto that a NASA spacecraft has been sending back to Earth.

Being something of a space geek, I actually welcomed the Pluto pictures, but that doesn’t change the fact that NASA’s Pluto mission is among the major stories that are keeping journalists busier than usual this summer.

Other stories that have surfaced lately are simply head-scratchers. For instance, a few days before the Confederate battle flag came down in South Carolina, a colleague sent me a link to one about a Cabell County man who apparently was keeping two deer as pets – and not just in his backyard. He was allegedly allowing them INSIDE HIS HOME!

Clearly the deer story lacks the importance of a nuclear deal. But I still paid attention to it because it was important to me personally.

Deer are the scourge of my commute. And they are the scourge of my wife’s garden. When they are not stalking me as I drive to and from work, they are making a meal out of my wife’s daylilies.

The last thing I need is a couple of them staring at me while I sleep, raiding my refrigerator, lounging on my couch, hogging my TV and using my shower.

I’m blaming the deer story and the busier-than-usual summer on whoever let slip that “it’s a slow day” inside a newsroom – leaving me to worry about the next major story and, more importantly, whether deer prefer the toilet lid up or down.

Here’s why I won’t be seeing “Jurassic World” again

Has anyone not seen “Jurassic World?”

I ask because of the ads I noticed on television this week.

They scream that the dinosaur flick is “THE #1 MOVIE IN THE WORLD!” And, in a not so subtle manner, encourage us all to SEE! IT! AGAIN!

The dinosaur flick has raked in so much money since it hit theaters, if I didn’t know better I’d say our dog Rodney is the lone holdout.

This may come as a surprise considering how much I bore my wife by watching the same movies over and over again, but in the case of “Jurassic World”, once is enough.

It’s not because it’s a terrible movie. It’s because I’m cheap.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some movies out there that I would pay to see twice in theaters. It’s just that “Jurassic World” isn’t one of them.

Here’s why: my penny-pinching Dad brain kicked-in after the lights dimmed and the movie started. The makers of the film captured the look and feel of an amusement park so accurately that all I could think about was how expensive it would be to take the kids there. I could feel my wallet shrivelling in my pocket.

First, there’s the flight for, in our case, a family of four. Then the cruise ship ride out to the island, not to mention the price of admission to the park itself.

As for food and drink, I couldn’t help but cringe as the camera panned over the park crammed with seemingly happy parents and their kids having the time of their lives.

It wasn’t that long ago when I could have been an extra in that scene. Back when our kids were younger, we took them to Florida to stay at the Nickelodeon Hotel. The “Jimmy Neutron” cartoon was popular on Nick TV back then and we paid for the privilege of staying in a room decorated with cutouts of Jimmy and his friends, Carl and Sheen. While there, we joined the throngs at the local attractions, because why take the kids to Florida if you’re not going to spring for Disney World?

That vacation was one of our more memorable trips with the kids. But anyone who has taken children to an amusement park knows it’s all fun and games until one of them melts down.

That’s where lunch comes in.

And that’s when, after you’ve paid for everything else, sticker shock sets in.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about parenting kids, it’s this: happiness is directly associated with a full stomach. But you might as well take the kids to a five-star restaurant for all the money you spend at an amusement park lunch counter. That’s why the thought of buying lunch at a place like “Jurassic World” scares me more than a pack of hungry velociraptors eyeing my fashionable Dad Bod when it’s time for the midday meal.

On second thought maybe I will round up the kids and give “Jurassic World” a second look.

Unless they pay their own way, it’s the closest they are ever going to get to a place like that again.

When you play the “Game of Lawns”

My wife ought to be happy.

There’s one less TV show on my packed viewing schedule. The fifth season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” came to its typically violent and fatal conclusion last Sunday.

I’ve sat through each episode since the show premiered, even when it was so shocking all I wanted to do was turn off my TV. But I’ve stuck with it and have read all the books because at some point, something good has got to happen to the kids of House Stark, right?

That may be wishful thinking, but I want to be there if the Starks ever stop falling victim to the so-called Lords and Ladies of Westeros, a ruling class whose cruelties exceed even those of our cat when she’s caught a mouse.

For now, however, I’m left to scour the internet like all the other “Throneheads” who are looking for clues to what the future holds. The show has largely caught up with where the books have left off. And since the author, George R.R. Martin, has yet to finish the book series, the story is ripe for all sorts of crazy theories.

But even I’ve got to step away from time to time. And, when I do I play a different sort of game.

The conclusion of season five means I’ve got a whole extra hour each week to play a game that should actually please my wife instead of frustrating her – call it the “Game of Lawns.”

The “Game of Lawns” is a simple game played by suburban dads. Instead of a sword with which to take off an opponent’s head, all that’s needed is a lawnmower and the wherewithal to stay ahead of your rivals.

It’s a game my wife fully understands. She plays her version during the winter when she strives to be the first among our neighbors to clear the driveway of snow.

But while she regularly triumphs, I’m usually one step behind.

Okay, maybe I’m more than one step behind. It might be more like three or four.

The point is, there’s nothing like arriving home from work to find most of your neighbors have mowed while your yard looks as if it’s way overdue for a visit to the barber.

This week, however, was different.

I actually got the jump on my rivals.

I got up early Wednesday morning, pulled out my rickety old lawn mower, crossed my fingers and actually got it running, which was quite a trick. The previous week it spewed so much dirty oil onto its deck that I feared it would never start again.

But it surprised me. It roared back to life after I replenished its oil supply.

It ran so smoothly, I happily mowed the front yard, secure in the knowledge that, for at least one week, I was on track to win “The Game of Lawns.”

But then I made catastrophic mistake.

I took a break before mowing the backyard.

I can only assume that the sound of my mower must have spurred one of my neighbors to action. When I came back outside after an hour or so I found he had mowed his ENTIRE lawn, front and back.

It was a move worthy of those consummate schemers of House Lannister.

That’s what I get for not remaining vigilant.

On the bright side, at least the consequences I faced are not as severe as if I were playing the “Game of Thrones.”

You either win or die playing that game.

I was just left to play catch up, again.