munchkin astrology

(Credit: Sebastian Voltmer Photography)

I’ve had a frustrating and enlightening week, tending to the heart of my home. After a year that most of us agree is the worst in memory, we come into the holiday season with several remarkable astronomical and astrological events. This month, we’ve had a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and a once-every-800-year spectacle, the incredible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. 

My friends and I often discuss what might be happening, after sheltering-in-place since mid-March, more than 300,000 pandemic deaths in the US alone…plus amazingly idiotic behavior by our president, Republican senators, a wide variety of elected officials…and record-breaking wildfires.

What’s happening is the boiler stopped working. Down in the guts of my house there lies a marvelous piece of engineering, a Munchkin high-efficiency water boiler that not only provides hot water, but radiant floor heating. It is the key piece of infrastructure technology; there is no furnace, no ducting, no air conditioning. It ran reliably for for the first ten years, then starting to misbehave about two years ago. Last winter, I paid a very good plumbing company $$$$ to come service the thing, and along the way, the plumber was kind enough to discuss the design of the unit, tell me about likely failure points, and how to deal with them. That was a Prescient Conversation. All was fine until a few weeks ago — I think it was the same day as the solar eclipse — the house was cold when we woke up.

I crawled down into the Munchkin room, removed the cover from the boiler, and sure enough, there is a flashing error code on the display. I reset the error, and after some hesitation, the boiler fired up. We Are Saved!

Umm, not quite. Over the next two weeks, it starts failing more frequently, as Jupiter and Saturn approach conjunction. I think there are eight separate days when I have to go reset it. Last Friday, 3 days before the planets get their closest, the boiler would not reset and the error persisted. As if it has a sense of humor, the error is F09, which I believe means “you are fucked for the ninth time”

If you aren’t a geek, please skip this paragraph. The boiler blows air and meters gas very precisely, using a ’swirl plate’ to make the air turbulent, creating a hot and efficient flame. The flame is measured using a ‘flame rectification probe’, which uses the plasma of the flame to turn a small AC current into a tiny DC current for the controller. If the flame is not just right, the 1-microamp current is not the correct value, and the controller shuts down the burner. After cycling four separate times, blowing the chamber clear of gas and exhaust and reigniting, it throws one of several error codes.

So I cheerfully read the 80-page Installation, Programming and Diagnosis Guide, watch several YouTube videos (thank you, Craig Smith!) then start replacing parts that might throw the mixture off and cause the failure. There is no way to really test anything, of course. The first part to get my attention is the controller, $330 of electronics now available in a new, improved version that ‘senses the flame more accurately’. That seems logical, the plumber had told me that nearly every one of these manufactured-in-2008-boilers he’s worked on has needed a new controller.

I require the serial number and manufacturing date to get a new controller programmed, and I secure this photo of an invisible part of the housing after considerable contortion and cobweb yoga. Note that our boiler was born on February 21, 2008, on the Aquarius/Pisces cusp. Our Jupiter/Saturn conjunction is in Aquarius. Coincidence? I think not!

One of our local plumbing supply houses has a controller upgrade kit up in Santa Rosa, so I gleefully leave my cold house to drive two hours and pick it up. When I get home, the house is warm again. WTF?

It turns out that the controller is smart enough to re-try the startup sequence once an hour, and while I was gone, the box-I-thought-was-dying asserted a last gasp of life. Jen and I enjoyed an evening of dinner and vino, and I warily went to sleep with my fingers crossed.

Saturday morning all seems to be working, but by afternoon, my nemesis is flashing F09 again. Ok, I gather my tools and crawl back into the operating theater. The new controller and display are not hard to install, and with a silent prayer, I turn the little metal monster back on. Now it flashes an F10 error code. Fucked for the tenth time.

After several attempts, the boiler lights, and we have another warm night. In fact, two warm nights. And then Monday, the day of the conjunction, dawns bright and cold and chilly in the house. Back to the plumbing supply store to pick up two other parts that might cause the failure, a new flame rectification probe and a new swirl plate. They are inexpensive parts likely to fail some day, so it seems prudent to go ahead and buy them. I try the easy fix first. The new flame probe is simple to install, but damn, it takes several attempts to get the boiler working again.

The array of parts replaced in this adventure. Controller board and display on the left, swirl plate in the middle, flame rectification probe next to it.

Not for long, of course…today it F10’d again. So I bring in all my tools and a vacuum cleaner, and dive into the guts up to my elbows to replace the swirl plate. This requires removal of the burner, so I might as well give the burner chamber it’s periodic cleaning, even though it was serviced just a year ago. There is little soot, nothing that should cause a problem. Also, the swirl plate is in apparent perfect condition, so there is no reason to expect the new one to make any difference. After an hour of labor, I get the beast all back together, double check that all connections are plugged in, turn on the gas, and flip the switch.

It works. Perfectly. It even fires up with a soft, almost inaudible thump, a sign that the mixture is perfect. 

So I fixed it, but I have no idea how. Therefore, I consider this to be A Miracle. I’ve performed a miracle! Or perhaps it’s just working now that we are a day past the conjunction? Or it just wanted a little love and attention? I don’t know and I don’t care, I’m happy, I’ve avoided paying a bunch of money to the plumber, and I’ve earned my glass of wine this evening. 

I wrap this little tale of mystery up with a beautiful amateur astronomy shot of the planets in conjunction. We will never see this again, and neither will our decendants for many generations. Of all the strange things befalling us this year, the beauty of the planets dancing so close together inspires hope in me for the new year. And my trust in the Munchkin has been restored.

walkabout west, part 4

Ah, Mormon country. I’ve been at at my stepsister’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a couple of days catching up and visiting her and her family. This is the northernmost point of my journey. Camille and Michael are a quirky and liberal couple, in a low-key but generally-conservative town. They tell me more west coast folks are moving into the area, so it’s not as redneck as it was 35 years ago when I first visited. In any case, I have to share a local story, and explain the photos above.

Down the street from their house is a park, and a Mormon church. In the park is a twin 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannon from World War II. Back in the 1980’s, it was apparently fully operational, and kids could climb on it, crank the wheels and aim it. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Some kids managed to pour gunpowder down a cannon barrel, along with some big rocks, aim it directly at the church steeple, and fire it. If you look closely at the last photo, you will see masonry repair on the center of the steeple. The town promptly disabled all the cranks, leaving it pointed directly at the church steeple for all eternity. I wonder how the church-goers feel about that?  Another legend of the wild west is born.

For two days, we hung out and talked and listened and talked some more. I love these people, and hadn’t seen them in 3 years, since Jen and I traveled up to visit for the solar eclipse of 2017. But I need to return home on October 7th, and so I took off westward on the morning of the 5th to blitz back to California. I drove straight west across vast lava fields, through Craters of the Moon National Monument and past old wagon trails from the mid-1800’s. Crossing the Snake River, I sped across eastern Oregon, through Burns to US 395, then down past Lakeport and Goose Lake towards Lassen.

Now I’m approaching my home turf. I arrive in Susanville just after dark, and complete my 800-mile day by driving west on Highway 36 through Chester to Mill Creek, and my cabin up in the mountains. 14 hours on the road. I’m tired and happy, this has been the long day I knew I would need do in order to get home when promised. After dinner and a couple of margaritas, I’m in my own comfy bed for the night. I have a full day to relax at the cabin tomorrow.

I need to shut the cabin down for the winter, as freezing temperatures are approaching and, at 4900 feet in elevation, the cabin is going to get some feet of snow soon. The squirrels built a nest in storage space upstairs, and I take several hours cleaning it out, throwing away junk I will never use…old faucets and paint, broken children’s toys, ratty blankets. Finally on my last morning, I drain the water heater, pack the perishables from the refrigerator into my insulated bag, drain the plumbing, and lock up. My four-hour drive home is familiar and uneventful, and I’m happy to see Jen after all my private space and time.

Here is the full trip map. 3800 miles, 17 days, no road kills, no mechanical problems or issues of any kind. Obsidian the X5 is a wonderful, spacious and comfortable traveling companion.

I wish I could share something brilliant and conclusive after this trip, but I’m mostly left with a series of impressions and feelings. People are definitely dealing with the virus in very different ways across the different states. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are all having serious outbreaks, yet many people still wander around without masks and public opinion is deeply split, almost entirely along political lines. I am puzzled (and a little amused) that medical decisions and political beliefs seem tied together. It’s interesting that the current flavor of American conservatism shows up in both ways. And I was surprised to feel unsafe in some of the places I visited — I fear the Trump supporters, I don’t understand their thinking, and I don’t trust them to behave in compassionate and neighborly ways.

The land looked familiar (from prior trips) yet felt very different to me this time. I’m sure that says more about me than about the land. My last few years of training in energy work have deeply shifted my perception of the world around me, and it was a pleasure to feel the sacredness of places, like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Shiprock, Santa Fe, the Sonoran desert. It was also a bit horrifying to feel places that have been spoiled, altered and/or paved over. I’m getting more used to living in a world of feeling, with much less thought distracting my attention. This is a good thing.

walkabout west, part 2

Day two is chilly, and I am hiding in my snug sleeping bag as dawn breaks. Finally my desire for coffee and a hot soak gets the better of me, and I emerge into the frosty air and fire up the stove. I will say all the smoke makes for pretty sunrises. Even better, my strategy of planting the intake hose underwater in the hot tub paid off, as the temperature is perfect.

Yes, I’m traveling with a digital thermometer.

Breaking camp early, I’m on to Highway 6 down the Long Valley Caldera, site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in North America. 7600 centuries ago, the explosion covered the continent in ash as far as the Mississippi River. I head east on 266 up through the mountains past the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Again, no traffic on a road that is occasionally only one lane. I see six cars and trucks in a hundred miles. This is starting to feel like an adventure. Finally!

Today, the desert feels suddenly familiar, as though I never left. The vast stretches along the Nevada border are relaxing and scenic, and the lack of traffic brings a secret feeling of delight and exploration. I stop to check out the ruins of a mining town called Palmetto, then reach US 95 and take it straight down through Las Vegas into Arizona, through Kingman and south to Phoenix. As expected, Arizona is hot, 98 to 104°F most of the afternoon. The X5 is eerily quiet, comfortable and cool. As I expected, the tiny town of Wickenberg is a riot of Trump signs (including one of these!), no one wears masks even though COVID is rampaging through Arizona at the moment. I amuse myself while gassing up by searching for Wickenberg on the inter tubes, and of course, I find The Patriots of Wickenberg first thing. Sigh. As I approach Phoenix, iconic saguaro cacti start appearing, and I’m entering the Sonoran desert of my childhood.

After dining out and a quiet night in a hotel, I’m heading down towards Tucson, to visit my sister at her little paradise out in the middle of the desert. When I was a kid, the only thing out here were Strategic Air Command ICBM bases, with nuclear warheads poised to rain destruction anywhere on the planet. Now decommissioned, there are houses and ranches scattered across this especially-lush and mostly-untouched landscape. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Picacho Peak, looking northwest from my sister’s home
Barrel cactus with fruit

Whimsical cactus and sculpture
A moody sun peering through a Palo Verde tree

This is the southernmost point of my loop around the west, and I feel happy and nostalgic when I take my leave the next day, crossing parts of central Arizona I haven’t seen since I was a young man. Local roads and US Highway 60 take me northeast, through the Globe, the Salt River valley, and Show Low, another hotbed of Trump signs. There was actually a state-sponsored sign outside of town headlined “Stop the spread of COVID”, then listing four steps you can take with no mention of wearing a mask. It did say to “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze”. Yeah, like that will help. No wonder Arizona has one of the highest infection rates in the world right now. 

Regardless, the country is beautiful, and my senses are delighted. So is my mind — I was a geophysics major in college.

Salt River valley
Century plants and veined rock formations
Mesa in northeastern Arizona

Emerging into mesa country, I followed US 191 and Highway 61 into New Mexico and Zuni indian lands. 191 is one of my favorite highways, as further south it twists through spectacular canyons and the copper mining town of Morenci on the eastern side of Arizona. It used to be called US 666, until some Christian group raised a ruckus about it, and a hapless government official caved and renamed it.

Now I’m within striking range of my next destination, Santa Fe. The empty road weaves across mesas, around outcrops, through reservation land, and past spectacular cliffs and arches.

Arriving at sunset at our dear friend Shannon’s house, my day of sensory delights is capped by New Mexico’s signature riot of color in the sky. I’m saturated, feeling like my eyeballs need to re-integrate with the rest of my body. It’s completely peaceful and quiet, though I’m only a few blocks away from the central plaza in town. I could live here.