JR-X1: My Rocket Project—How it works

The goal of my project is to launch a model rocket that, upon reaching its highest point, flies itself back down as a glider, using control surfaces operated by an onboard autopilot computer to guide itself back to the launch/landing field for a targeted, soft, horizontal landing.

As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before.

In my last post, I talked about the goal—summarized above—of my rocket project, JR-X1, and about some of the constraints that make it a challenging goal.

In this post, I’ll describe how it works, at a conceptual level—what are the building blocks, and how do they interact to make the rocket / glider do what I want it to?

Here’s a list of the major blocks, followed by fuller descriptions of each block:

  • the rocket body, which is also the glider fuselage;
  • the rocket fins, which are also the glider wings and tail;
  • the rocket motor and the motor mount, to which is attached a parachute;
  • the sensors that inform the aircraft of its location, orientation, velocity, acceleration, altitude, etc;
  • the control surfaces: elevons on the trailing edges of the glider’s wings, and rudderons on the trailing edges of the vertical tails, so there’s a control surface on the trailing edge of each of the four rocket fins;
  • stepper motors to move the control surfaces;
  • last but not least, the flight computer, which interprets data from the sensors, computes the path to the landing point, and initiates control surface movements to steer the rocket on that path.


The body needs to be streamlined to minimize drag, which has two effects. It allows the rocket to fly higher on ascent, because there’s less drag counteracting the thrust of the engine. And the higher the flight, the faster the glider on the way down, which is important because lift increases with airspeed.

I’ve chosen to streamline the body by making it with an airfoil cross-section, instead of a simple cylinder-with-a-cone-on-top.

This has two advantages: it produces less drag than the cylinder+cone design; and it provides lift on its own during the descent glide, independent of the wings. Just how it provides lift, I’ll discuss in a future post about aerodynamics in detail, but for now just believe this: As long as the glider is gliding with its nose pointed slightly up, the body’s shape provides lift additional to the lift provided by the wings.

The body is about 600mm long. This is a compromise:

On the one hand, the longer the body, the longer the wing “chord” it can support (the chord is the distance from a wing’s leading edge to its trailing edge). A longer chord gives more lift at a given speed.

On the other hand, the bigger the rocket, the more it weighs, resulting in a lower peak altitude for a given engine size, which argues for keeping the rocket as small as possible.

Another consideration—on a third hand, so to speak—the rocket needs to have enough room inside for the flight computer, the sensors, and the stepper motors. In particular, the main computer I plan to use, the Raspberry Pi 4B, is 59mm wide, about 5⅓”. The way the body’s airfoil shape is designed, that means the body needs to be at least 500mm long (~19½”) to be sure it’s at least 60mm at the widest part. I added 20% to allow for any minor errors in fabrication, so it has to be at least 600mm long.

In the end, I went with 600mm exactly—minimum weight that meets the capacity requirement.

Since first publishing this post, I’ve realized that this analysis is… incomplete, to put it kindly. The three original considerations—wing chord, weight, and capacity—aren’t wrong, but there’s a cart-before-the-horse problem. I’ve been designing the vehicle—the rocket glider—first, and then experimenting with various computers and motors I might use, tweaking the body design as needed.
Revising that approach, I’m now going to focus first on the flight computer and the stepper motors. Once I know what will be inside the vehicle, I can design the body to hold it. Stay tuned.
(I should have been suspicious of my reasoning as soon as I caught myself adding in that 20% fudge factor. I mean, really.)

Fins / wings and tail

The rocket has two large fins that serve as the glider’s wings, and two smaller fins that serve as the glider’s vertical tails, something like this:

The large “delta” (triangular) wings provide plenty of lift.

There are two vertical tail fins because rocket fins have to be placed symmetrically.

The elevons and rudderons are visible in this sketch.

Unlike the plump, rounded airfoil profile of the body, the wings and tail are thin, nearly flat, with just a slight airfoil profile in cross-section:

Wing cross-section, leading edge on the left

The reason is because delta wings work best if they’re nearly flat, with a sharp leading edge. (A future post will cover the aerodynamics behind that statement.) The geometry isn’t as aerodynamically important for the tails, but their weight and drag will be less if we make them thin as well.

(Since I wrote that last sentence, I’ve learned more about how tailfins—also known as vertical stabilizers—provide “sideways lift” to help control yaw. So the geometry does matter. More details will be in the aerodynamics post.)

Motor and motor mount

Model Rocket Motors from various online catalogs

The rocket motor is a standard, commercially available, model rocket motor. As mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t plan to make my own motors or fuel, because my liability insurance requires that I follow the Model Rocket Safety Code, which forbids homemade motors and fuel.

The motor mount is the adapter to fit the motor into the rocket body:

Typical motor mount (Image: Apogee Components)

A word about “motor” vs “engine.” Linguistic prescriptivists will say that a motor runs on electricity, and an engine runs on chemical energy. By that definition, one should say “rocket engine.
As it turns out, though, language evolves, and the two terms are interchangeable in common usage today. (One of the two major model rocket retailers uses “motor,” and the other uses “engine”.)
I usually say “rocket motor,” trusting that the reader will understand that I don’t mean a rocket powered by electricity.

You can see that the inside diameter of the motor mount matches the diameter of the motor/engine. The outside diameter of the centering rings matches the inside diameter of the rocket. The whole assembly slides into the tail of the rocket.

In typical model rockets, the motor mounts are glued into the rockets. However, on JR-X1, I want to be able to use motors of various diameters, so it will have three interchangeable motor mounts, for 18mm, 20mm, and 24mm motors.

I’m still figuring out how that will work.


“What?!?” I hear you cry. Why do you need a parachute if it’s going to land itself?”

Three reasons:

  1. One is the usual reason for carrying a parachute aloft: If something goes wrong while you’re up in the air, it’s nice to have an alternative to falling out of the sky and hitting the ground at 150mph.
  2. The second is for test flights. For starters, before I shoot $100 worth of electronics up in the air, I want to make sure the rocket that it’s on can fly reliably. Even after I have the computer installed, I’ll want to test it in flight before I let it control anything. Those test flights will work like normal model rockets, popping a parachute for a controlled descent and recovery.
  3. Finally, I may want a braking parachute so that it doesn’t rely only on the ground skid to come to a stop. The idea would be to pop the braking parachute just before hitting the ground (which is a design problem worth its own blog post. It turns out that measuring very low altitudes accurately, within the weight and budget limitations of a model rocket, is a hard engineering problem.)
    Update: I have found sources for lightweight, inexpensive LIDAR units that can measure up to a meter. LIDAR is like radar, but with light instead of radio waves.

The reason I’m describing the parachute just after the motor mount is because the parachute is attached to the motor mount, and the motor mount is in turn attached to the rocket body by a length of cord.


Fully loaded, JR-X1 will carry numerous sensors that collect the data needed for navigation. Right now, I’m envisioning the following:

  • 3-axis accelerometer to measure acceleration in each of the three dimensions;
  • 3-axis gyroscope to measure changes in the aircraft’s orientation;
  • Barometric altimeter measures altitude based on air pressure;
  • GPS to measure location and altitude based on GPS satellite positioning;
  • Magnetic compass to find North, and to detect altitude based on Earth’s magnetic field;
  • the LIDAR short-range altimeter mentioned above;
  • and maybe a pitot-tube-style airspeed indicator, which measures velocity relative to the air rather than relative to the ground.

Although some of this information is directly useful for navigation, much of it needs to be preprocessed before it can be used.

One obvious example is altitude: there may be as many as four values for altitude—three measured by sensors, plus altitude can be computed from the accelerometer data—so the preprocessing software has to come up with a “most likely” altitude value to give to the navigation component.

This preprocessor transforms the raw data into measurement values that can be used for navigation. This transform processor (“XFORM“) publishes the following:

  • The current location vertically and horizontally.
  • The current velocity vertically and horizontally.
  • The current acceleration vertically and horizontally.
  • The current pitch, yaw, and roll positions in degrees. Pitch is how much the glider is pointing up or down compared to its direction of travel; yaw is how much the glider is pointing left or right; and roll is how much the glider has rolled to one side or the other.
  • Pitch, yaw, and roll angular velocity; that is, the rate of change of the pitch, yaw, and roll position.
  • Pitch, yaw, and roll angular acceleration; i.e. the rate of change of the pitch, yaw, and roll velocity.

These computed values are updated constantly as new sensor data comes in, and the values are passed to the computer’s navigation unit and pilot unit.

Control surfaces

The control surfaces are hinged flaps at the trailing edges of the fins.

Elevons are at the trailing edges of the wings; rudderons are at the trailing edges of the vertical tails.

Elevons have the functions of elevators and ailerons on a “traditional” aircraft; rudderons have the functions of rudders and ailerons. Hence their names.

Elevons control the pitch of the aircraft by moving up together to raise the nose, and down to lower the nose.

Rudderons control the yaw of the aircraft by moving to the left together to turn left, and to the right to turn right.

Elevons and rudderons work together to roll the glider left or right (for example in a banked turn). To roll right, the right elevon is raised and the left elevon is lowered, and simultaneously the upper rudderon is moved to the left while the lower rudderon is moved to the right. To roll left, the four control surfaces are moved in the opposite directions.

Stepper motors

Stepper motors are small electric motors that can be turned a precise fraction of a revolution by a computer command. One stepper motor drives each control surface.

Two components of the flight computer control the stepper motors: the trim control, and the pilot.

The trim control keeps the aircraft’s pitch, yaw, and roll at their “normal” values: nose pitched 20º up (because of delta wing aerodynamics); roll at zero to keep wings level; and yaw at zero to keep the glider pointed in the direction it’s going. If any of these drift from their set values, the trim control instructs the stepper motors to move the appropriate control surfaces to correct the drift.

The pilot component steers the glider to keep it flying toward the landing site. It sends commands to the control surfaces through the stepper motors to turn or bank, or increase or decrease the rate of descent.

Both the pilot and the trim control normally command relative movements of the control surfaces, which allows the stepper motor controller to integrate the two sets of commands.

For example, the trim control might be in the middle of correcting a slight roll to the left, by lifting the right elevon by 1º and lowering the left elevon by 1º. At the same time, the pilot could be commanding a pitch-up, telling the stepper motors to raise each elevon by 5º. Specifically, the pilot does not set the elevons to an absolute angle of 5º. The net effect of the two commands will be left elevon up 4º and right elevon up 6º, pitching the nose up while continuing to correct the roll.

A small computer (perhaps an Arduino) receives commands, interprets them, and sends signals to the stepper motors.

Flight computer

The “flight computer” is actually a small network of computers, each hosting the software components to perform one or more functions. This allows the components to operate simultaneously, in parallel.

Here’s the list of flight computer components, together with my current thinking about which computers will host which components.

  • Raw input: this interrupt-driven component reads the raw data from the sensors, and passes it to the pre-processor. It will probably run on the main computer, the Pi 4B, because its multicore architecture allows it to process multiple interrupts simultaneously.
  • Input pre-processor: First, transforms the data into standard units. For example, the data from an accelerometer may have a value from 0 to 4095 to represent acceleration up to 10 G’s; the pre-processor knows that ratio, and translates, for example, a reading of 2048 to 5 G’s, or 49 meters/sec2.
    The pre-processor’s second task is to compute the quantities derived from the sensor data; for example, it uses accelerometer and gyroscope data to compute current velocity and orientation. A full list of these derived values is above, in the Sensors section. I plan to run the preprocessor on the same computer as the raw input component.
  • Navigator: tracks whether the glider is on a path to the landing site; and if not, determines what changes of direction and/or descent rate are necessary to get it back on path.
  • Pilot: uses the input from the Navigator, together with the flight dynamics values (location / velocity / acceleration values, and pitch / yaw / roll values and their rates of change) to execute turns and adjust the rate of descent. The Pilot and the Navigator run together on their own computer.
  • Trim control: as described above, this component is responsible for maintaining steady pitch, yaw, and roll orientation in the absence of pilot commands to the contrary. Depending on how much compute power it needs, Trim Control could share the Pilot / Navigator computer, or it could run on a small, separate computer.
  • Stepper motor controller: Running on a small, separate computer (perhaps an Arduino), this component receives commands from the Pilot and Trim Control components, and drives the stepper motors accordingly.
  • Data distribution: using a publish / subscribe model, this component receives data (input and computed values) from components, and distributes the data to the components that need it. Could run on the main computer if it has the capacity, or could be separated out onto its own computer.
  • Logging: a record of every input, every computed value, and every command. Ideally runs on the main computer, to take advantage of its USB3 port for fast transfer to SSD.
  • Network: The various computers are connected by a high-speed, wired, switched Ethernet network. The network switch is a separate circuit board. The switch supports speeds of 10 / 100 / 1000 Base-T, to accommodate the Ethernet interfaces of any of the computers.

Those are the building blocks of the overall rocket / glider design, and how they work together. In my next post, I’ll get into the aerodynamics of both the rocket and the glider.

JR-X1: My Rocket Project—Introduction

The goal of my project is to fly a model rocket that, upon reaching its highest point, flies itself back down as a glider, using control surfaces operated by an onboard autopilot computer to guide itself back to the launch/landing field and a targeted, soft, horizontal landing.

As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before.

This post started as an email letter to my 41-year-old son, a software developer and a space and astronomy geek, because he had expressed interest in my rocket project a few months ago. After I’d been typing for a few hours (!), I realized I had more to say than I could fit into a reasonable-length email. The topic needed something like chapters.

That sounds like a series of blog posts to me.

So I copy/pasted the unfinished email into WordPress, massaging it only slightly to create this post.

Future posts will start getting into the aerodynamics, the flight computer, and the design process, but first we need to cover some basics, which is what this post does. Here I’ll

  • define the goal;
  • lay out some of the constraints—regulatory, legal, safety, and a couple of self-imposed constraints; and
  • offer a couple of personal notes, including the (mildly embarrassing) story of how I came to be interested in rocketry.
The goal is simply stated: to fly a model rocket that, upon reaching apogee, flies back down as a glider, using control surfaces operated by an onboard autopilot computer to guide itself back to the launch/landing field and a targeted, soft, horizontal landing.

Simple to state, but difficult enough to do that no one has done it yet, to my knowledge.

This “gliding descent” is similar to spaceplanes like the Space Shuttle — except without a pilot — or the X-37B. That is to say, “gliding descent” is a euphemism for “barely controlled diagonal plummet terminating in a high-speed skid,” as seen in the linked video clips.
Nail-biting, but it works.

There’s a problem with both of these spaceplanes, though: as good as they are at being gliders on the way down, they’re actually not very good rockets on the way up. That’s because their wings are designed to provide lift, that is, a force that pushes from the bottom surface of the wings to the top whenever the aircraft is moving. That’s great when the Shuttle (or X-37B) is gliding down, parallel to the ground, but not when it’s pointing straight up, as at launch.

At launch, with the Shuttle (or X-37B) pointing straight up, that force of “lift” is actually directed sideways, because it’s still pushing from the bottom surface of the wings to the top. Obviously, you don’t want a sideways force when you’re trying to go straight up, so the Shuttle engines have to compensate: they direct part of their thrust sideways in the opposite direction to counteract the “lift” . This sideways thrust, and the fuel to provide it, are basically wasted. Pushing sideways doesn’t help the Shuttle get where it’s going; it just keeps it from tipping over as it ascends.

In fact, this was such a problem on the early X-37B flights that they now put the spaceplane inside the booster rocket for launch; it doesn’t come out until it reaches the edge of space.

This leads to one of my self-imposed constraints: I want my rocket to be not only a good glider coming down; I also want it to be a good rocket going up.

And for a reason — the more efficient the rocket is, the higher it flies; and the higher it flies, the longer the glider flight coming down. A longer descent from a higher altitude is more challenging, which, to me, makes it more interesting.

This constraint becomes a design requirement: my rocket has to be symmetrical.

It has to have a round body; fins that provide no lift when it’s flying straight; and symmetrical placement of the fins. I really only need 3 fins — two for the glider’s wings and one for its vertical tail. But to keep it symmetrical, I need a fourth fin, opposite the vertical tail, resulting a glider that not only has a tail fin sticking up in back, it has an identical one sticking down.

What I’m doing is also different from other model rocket glider projects that I’ve seen online, because of a second self-imposed constraint:

I want my descent glider to be the same aircraft as my ascent rocket.

That rules out one approach I’ve seen: reconfiguring the fins / wings at apogee. One design I saw, for example, had long, slender glider wings that folded, spring-loaded, into the body at launch, where they wouldn’t interact with the air during ascent; then an electronic switch would release them at apogee, and the springs would pop these long, slender wings out for the glide down. That’s very cool and very clever, but that’s not what I want to make.

This presents a tricky design problem:

The part that works as a rocket fin on the way up, also has to work as a glider wing on the way down.

The reason this is tricky is because the best rocket fins are small, thin, triangular shaped, and mounted at the rear; while the best glider wings have a wide wingspan and a thick cross-section; they’re shaped like long skinny rectangles; and they’re mounted near the center of the glider.

As I said, more challenging is more interesting.

The other big set of self-imposed constraints is implicit in the phrase “model rocket”, which has a precise definition in aeronautical law, in the national fire code, and in the amateur rocketry organizations’ safety codes.

Some major limitations imposed by model rocket laws, regulations and safety codes:

  • You can’t shoot a rocket from one place to another.
  • You have to launch straight up.
  • Your rocket has to make a soft landing. That’s for safety reasons—you don’t want your rocket coming down like a 100-mph lawn dart!
    For normal model rockets, this means a parachute descent. For my rocket, this means a gliding descent to a targeted, soft, horizontal landing.
  • No explosives on board (except a tiny black powder charge is allowed to pop the parachute). Model rockets are not fireworks.
  • The fully loaded rocket is limited to 1500 grams, about 3 lbs. Fuel mass is limited to 125 grams, about 4½ ounces.
  • Motors must be certified, commercially available model rocket motors — no home-brewed fuel or hand-assembled motors.
  • Total impulse of the motor(s) can’t exceed 160 newton-seconds.
  • There are rules for the size of the launch field based on the power of the motor.
  • Of course there are rules about fire safety, like don’t set the grass on fire in the launch field.
  • And so on.

Why would I work within this restrictive safety code? In a word, insurance. As a member of the National Association of Rocketry (nar.org), I’m covered by a five million dollar liability policy for any damage caused by my rocketry activities, as long as my rocketry activities are within the safety code. So, major motivation.

That’s (more than) enough about the goal and the constraints.

Here are a couple of personal tidbits.

This is an early concept sketch from my home whiteboard (everyone has a home whiteboard, right? No? Just me?) You can see I’m still figuring out the geometry of the fins/wings.

Concept sketch early May 2020

Why the name “JR-X1“? All my model rockets have a name and a number (they’ve all been simple kits so far). The number is JR-1 for the first one, JR-2 for the second one, and so on. Why JR? "J" for Jenny’s, and "R" for Rocket. The X is for eXperimental, just like NASA and the Air Force. I don’t know which JR number this one will be by the time it’s built, so it’s just X1 for now. And though I’ll have to lay eyes on it to know its name for sure, it’s likely to be named after my ancient Greek mythological spirit guide, Cassandra.

I did promise a mildly embarrassing personal note. It’s this: I got interested in model rockets for some very wrong reasons.

It started around the time those idiots were flying drones over Heathrow a few years ago, even shutting down the airport on a couple of days. I thought at the time, “If the military can make a surface-to-air missile that can take down an F-16, how hard can it be to make one to shoot down a 25-mph drone?”

So my engineering brain teamed up with my anger fantasy of shooting the damn things out of the sky, and I started planning how to make it work. Later, I got the idea of using air-to-air “missiles” (model rockets) instead of surface-to-air; they would be launched from an “anti-drone drone”. So I had to start studying the physics of flight, a lengthy undertaking.

At some point, Common Sense whispered in my ear, suggesting I at least take a look online, to find out if what I wanted to do was even legal. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that it would be very illegal, in so many ways. Like a $2,000,000 fine and life imprisonment illegal.

So I decided to let go of my dreams of righteous revenge. But the whole rockets / aerodynamics / engineering topic was so fascinating, I couldn’t let it go. So instead of dropping the whole concept, I morphed it little by little until I’d stripped out all the inconveniently illegal bits, and I ended up with the JR-X1 project. I’m OK with that. This project is challenging enough.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will cover the overall architecture of JR-X1, and future posts, which will get into the design process!

Words from Trans Day of Remembrance

About noon yesterday — the Transgender Day of Remembrance — I posted this on Facebook:

Today is the Trans Day of Remembrance.
Today we mourn our dead.
It is not a day of trans awareness or trans visibility or even trans advocacy.
It is a day of trans grief.
Allies, please respect that.

My friend Kim, who is perhaps the staunchest trans ally I know, asked in response (gently and compassionately, as is her way):

So, help me. As you know I’m an ally. Is an expression of love ok? Is sharing a sentiment like your comment, with our LGBTQ employee group ok? From an educational perspective?

My reply follows. It’s a Facebook comment that somehow morphed itself into something that is part essay, part self-therapy.

To your questions, yes, yes, and yes.

I’m referring to—to cite an extreme example—a public TDoR observance I attended that included speakers advocating for gay rights, as well a couple of politicians who, as politicians are wont to do, took it not as an opportunity to stand together in mourning, but as an opportunity to toot their own horns about what great allies they are etc.

I’ve seen allies try to lead the planning process.

I’ve seen the Day of Remembrance turned into Trans Week of Awareness And Education on one campus.

And none of those is a Bad Thing® in itself. What bothers me is losing the centrality of the meaning of this day.

I personally feel the day very deeply—those are *my people* who were killed, whose names were read. And it’s *my people* who live in fear of being on next year’s list.

It’s a time for us to face the truth of the hatred that too many people feel for us. And for me, it’s a time to contemplate the apparent miracle of my own privileged post-transition life, where I’m statistically unlikely to be physically assaulted, much less killed.

In large part, it’s a day for us, for my people, to unflinchingly face together the reality that is trans life, even that it includes the possibility of being killed by someone acting in blind hate.

On this day, I don’t need to hear all you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again; I just need to be held and understood. On the other 364 days of the year, then—yes, please, do tell me about all the work you’re doing for us.

But on this day, as we open ourselves to the deep emotions that come with encountering the deaths of our people, please treat it as a day of grief and mourning. That’s what it is.

I have no way of knowing whether any of my comment-cum-essay-cum-self-therapy helped to answer my friend’s questions. But she did “Like” my comment with a heart emoji, so I believe I did touch her in some way.

Transgender vs Gender Dysphoria

A friend messaged this question to me:

“Set me straight—am I confused—aren’t all transgender people gender dysphoric in that the gender physically born with is not the same as how they feel and identify?”

This is my response to the question.

It was pretty recently that I read my first article about people who are trans but don’t experience gender dysphoria. For those of us who follow the DSM, the idea is startling, because the medical model of trans has been and still is based on the old trope of “trapped in the wrong body”.

It’s true that many trans people can describe their experience as being trapped in the wrong body, of feeling dysphoria (unease / dissatisfaction / distress) regarding their bodies as compared to their gender identities.

But there are plenty of other trans people who are OK with their bodies, to varying degrees. An example is a trans woman who doesn’t have genital surgery, not because of financial or medical reasons, but because she simply doesn’t want it — she doesn’t need the surgeon’s knife because she’s secure enough in her gender identity and willing (even glad) to live in her body as it is. Another example is a genderqueer or non-binary person who’s undoubtedly trans (they certainly weren’t assigned nonbinary at birth!), yet is not dissatisfied with their body.

The DSM5 says “gender dysphoria diagnosis involves a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning.

Notice that distress is considered an essential element of gender dysphoria.

To be trans, though, is simply to have a gender identity differing from the gender assigned at birth (usually assigned on the basis of one physical characteristic).

Nothing about distress in there, so nothing about dysphoria.

And to be fair, the American Psychiatric Association begins its Gender Dysphoria web page with this paragraph. Note especially the “may be” and “sometimes”:

Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.

Sam Dylan Finch, a widely read trans writer, identifies as a genderqueer gay boy, although when I first encountered his blog he identified as simply genderqueer, with no reference to the male/female gender binary. He published an article in Everyday Feminism about why it’s problematic to insist that gender (or body) dysphoria is a necessary part of being trans.

While he details six reasons why, they’re all manifestations of a principle that’s part of any social justice worldview: When someone tells you their lived experience, believe them and learn from it.

Especially if they’re part of a marginalized group.

Especially if you’re not.


Cassandra, Prophet

This poem assumes the reader is familiar with the myth of Cassandra and Apollo. If you are not, you can read it in Cassandra’s Wikipedia article.

Content note: This poem has themes of sex and power, and is intended for adults.

Cassandra in the past, my kindred soul,
Looking to the future
With a Sight that needs no eyes.
(A Sight that needs no eyes?
Who can believe a thing like that?)

I believe, Cassandra. I know.
I know because I too can See,
But none believe me when I tell what I can See.
What has cursed both your prophetic gift, and mine,
That we can’t share with others Truths we know?

Oh, I learned the story long ago,
The story told of you and of Apollo:

The god whom you betrayed (they say)
Who righteously (they say) punished you for breach of contract
Declining to fulfill the promise
Written in your flirting,
Teasing god Apollo, driving him insane with unquenched desire.
How could you?
He gave to you the gift of prophecy.
You knew full well
The kind of thanks he wanted in exchange
(they say).
And so, Apollo cursed your prophecies,
By spitting in your mouth,
That they would never be believed
By any man or woman
(they say).

Thus ever more,
Cocktease you’ve been branded,
For centuries so slandered
By men.

Yes, by the men who wrote the story
Of Apollo and Cassandra
And passed it down to me.

But I know — my Sight shows me — what really happened.
Let my words be heard, whether they are heeded or are not.

Apollo, god coming to you as a full-grown man —
To you, Cassandra, still a girl —
A girl for a boy to love,
Not for a man, nor for a god as man appearing,
A god whose immaturity
Denies to him the possibility
Of adult passion with an adult woman.

Like every man-boy,
A gift, he thinks;
A gift will certainly seduce her;
A gift, yet with an obligation:
An obligation that she thank him —
Thank him, the giver who’ll be satisfied with gratitude in just one form —
The satisfaction of his wayward cock.

What gift gave he?
Not man-gift, nor even boy-gift, but god-boy gift.
“What girl would not desire to know her future?
Don’t they all?” (he thinks).
And so, in his self-serving magnanimity
He bestows on her the cruelest gift —

The gift of prophecy.

And then, without delay
His fevered, sweating body presses against hers
To claim what (he believes) she must offer him in gratitude.
Presses he with hands, with lips, with raging cock
Demanding, needing that she melt
And offer up her body, her most private parts
To him.

And she says,

Now angry, she says, “I did not agree to this.
Take back this power of prophecy,
A gift that comes with obligation is no gift,
But an attempt to barter,
And I barter not my intimacy.”

But alas, a gift god-given cannot be given back or taken back.
Such is the way of gods.

Apollo, panting, wanting, is at a loss,
Needing (he says) some form of release.
(Such is the way of boys.)
If not her secret part,
He begs and wheedles for consent to use
Her virginal, young, pure, sweet, wet

And she is weary of his pleading,
And weary of his pestering,
And weary of her fear, for he’s more powerful than she.
She wishes but to send him off.
And so, the sooner to be free of him,
She hesitates a moment,
But then slowly,
(Eyes closed),

She kisses it.

And then the godly juice bursts forth.
Her lips it soils, her tongue, her teeth, her throat.

The god says, with a sneer,
“Now all shall know that you suck cocks!”

“Unfair!” she cries. “You forced me to!”
“Oh no,” says he, “you begged to suck me off!”
“Not true!” she yells.

His final words defeat her:

“Whom will they believe:
A mighty god like me,
Or a shame-filled, simple girl, like you?

You know the answer, dear Cassandra.
And having lost your credibility with that,
None will e’er believe a word you ever say
Though you shall prophesy The Truth for all your days.

And when you, some day, as priestess in my temple,
Offer sacrifice to me,
You will this day remember,
When you sacrificed
Your capability
To tell The Truth and be believed.”


Two weeks ago
in the darkness
of the new moon
I celebrated Ostara

On this day
in the light
of the full moon
I celebrate Easter

Two spiritual songs
proclaiming new life
after the transformation
we call death

Harmonizing together
with countless more
a chorus of life
throughout the earth.

Changed the course of my life

A friend posted the following on Facebook:

Tell me about something that completely changed the course of your life, for better or for worse.

Challenge accepted. This is the result.

My parents lived in Albany, NY, and I was attending Michigan State University. The summer after my second year, I got a junk job in Flint, where my then-girlfriend lived. After she dumped me, I stayed with some nomadic hippies in Flint for a while, then went to visit a school friend at his family’s summer cottage.

After a week or two, his mom figured out that I hadn’t told my parents where I was; meanwhile, my ‘rents were panicking because they couldn’t get hold of me at my now-former apartment in Flint (no cell phones in 1970). The two sets of parents talked, and I was sent home to face the music.

Mom and Dad made it crystal clear:

I would not be going back to Michigan.
I would be living with them.
I would be getting a job in Albany.
I would be going to school in Albany.

All of this, until I “learned some responsibility”.

After a week or two of the new regime, I had to make a quick trip back to Michigan State, to pick up the possessions I had left in dorm storage at the beginning of the summer, and bring them back home.

Returning to Michigan State and East Lansing felt like coming home. I stayed overnight with friends. After much talking late into the night, I did what I had to do. I went to a pay phone, called my parents, and told them I wasn’t coming back, that I was going to stay in Michigan, because I wanted to.

Dad hit the roof. Usually careful to keep control when he talked to us kids, this time he barked, “You get your ass back home right now!”

“No,” I said.

And just like that, I left home for good.

A rant directed to Death

It’s taken a couple of weeks to put this into words, though it feels like we brushed past each other at D.’s bedside just a day or so ago.

I hate you. I hate that you took D. I really hate the way that you did it. The only satisfaction I have is that she gave you a hell of a fight. Three times you tried to get her with cancer, and three times she beat you. But then you unleashed the fourth one, that took away the use of her body. That was really dirty. D was nothing if not an embodied person. She loved her body, used it, expressed who she was with it, experienced the world with it. No wonder she went with you once you took that away. As usual, you won, but you can’t take any pride in that win. It was dirty.

It’s too many now. Just a short few years ago, I knew exactly how many people you’d taken out of my life — four grandparents, one father, one uncle, one father-in-law, one uncle-in-law, and three friends. But then, with S. and F., and now D., that’s six friends. You’re up to 14. (There were others, like my ex-sister-in-law, but they were no longer in my life when you came along to take them.)

Who’s next? My Mom’s 89, and my brother’s heart is weak. Am I going to have to deal with you taking them next? You better keep your hands off my kids. They’re too young and you know it.

Or maybe I’m next in the family, my wages of sin for a lifetime of smoking, or the past 15 years of gluttony and sloth. Oh, I hear you calling. Sometimes you think you can talk me into joining you voluntarily. But no. Absolutely not. Yes, I came close twice, and have the scars to prove it. But if there’s anything that proves I’m too much a survivor to fall for that trick, it’s the fact that I’m still here. You’ll never get me that way, if only because I’m too stubborn.

So I suppose you’ll be sneaky, like you are for so many people. A little piece of fat buildup in my artery, invisibly breaking off and traveling to my heart to jam a valve. Or some hidden organ in this incredibly complex body will fail — kidneys for me, I suppose — and you can watch me suffer til you finally take me. Or maybe you’ll sneak up on me on a dark street one night, in the guise of a tranny basher.

You and I both know that eventually you always win, with everyone. But I can guarantee you this — when you come for me, you’re in for a hell of a fight, whether it’s a physical fight with a street thug, or a spiritual fight with a disease.

You may be inevitable, you may be perfectly natural, but I still hate you. Because you attack the one thing in the world that makes my life — any life — bearable. You tear apart Love, the greatest force in the Universe. Oh, what, you think you’re the greatest force in the Universe? You’re wrong. You could not be more wrong. Because as much as you can hurt Love, as much as you can try to rip us away from Love, you can never take Love, the way you take each of us. No matter how many of us you take, the Love remains. You take millions in war, but when the war is over, there’s still Love. You take away friends and lovers and parents and children, but even then, Love remains.

You, Death, always take away. But Love always remains. And with that, you lose, and we win. Every. Single. Time.

Oh, that Electoral College

A Facebook friend posted today:
Question (answer with rationale invited):
Should the Electoral College elect Clinton or Trump?”
The question is significant right now because, while Trump apparently won an Electoral College majority, Clinton won a solid majority of the popular vote (a little more than 51%). I say Trump“apparently”won an Electoral College majority because the Electors, when they vote next week, are not necessarily required to vote for the candidate whom they previously said they would vote for. Theoretically the Electoral College could still give the victory to Clinton without violating any law or the Constitution.

Rather than answering the direct question – whom they should elect – I commented with some thoughts about how to develop the rationale. It ended up being one of those annoying five-paragraph Facebook comments that draws from history, philosophy, civics, and politics, using obscure polysyllabic words and long, complex sentences to showcase the writer’s erudition. That was obviously inappropriate for a Facebook comment; if you want to show off your erudition, you’re supposed to write a blog post. So here’s mine.
At the outset, let me say that I understand the question to be: what should today’s Electoral College do? The question is not how we wish a redesigned Electoral College might work; that’s a separate issue – one worth discussing – but it’s not the question at hand.
My starting point is that the answer to a “should” question depends on one’s assumptions. Here, the dueling assumptions are:
  • The United States is primarily a federation of sovereign states. This is most obviously represented by the Senate, where each state has an equal vote. This assumption was widely, though not universally, held when the Constitution was written and ratified.
  • The United States is primarily a democracy. This is most obviously represented in the House of Representatives, where each state’s voting power is proportional to its population. This assumption is widely, though not universally, held today.
If the US is a federation, then a strong case can be made for election of the President by the states rather than by the national populace. Just the existence of the Electoral College system suggests that this is the assumption of the Constitution.
If the US is a democracy, then a strong case can be made for election of the President by the national populace. The structure of the Electoral College suggests that this is the assumption of the Constitution — electoral votes are allocated to states roughly by population.
(A finer point about the democracy assumption: The US is not a direct democracy, it is a democratic republic; that is, the voice of the populace is expressed through democratically elected representatives. Both Congress and the electoral college system are consistent with the assumption that the US is a democratic republic.)
There are three flies in the ointment, so to speak, three issues that are not cleanly addressed by the assumptions above. One is intentionally embedded in the Constitution, and the other two reflect common practices that may not have been anticipated by the writers of the Constitution:
  • First, the electors, unlike US Representatives, are not allocated strictly by population: smaller states get proportionally more representation, therefore larger states get proportionally less, because the number of a state’s electors is the number of its (population-proportional) Representatives, PLUS TWO. This triples Delaware’s voting power in the Electoral College, for example, but only increases California’s by 4%. This adds an element of federalism to an otherwise democratic process.
  • Second, in all but two states, a state’s electors represent only the majority of the state’s populace; the minority has no representation in the Electoral College. This strongly pushes the Electoral College system in the direction of federalism rather than democracy. But the Constitution doesn’t require this system; nor does it prohibit it. In fact, in the US’s earliest elections, Electors were chosen in most states by the legislature, not by the people. Moreover, the Constitution contains no assumptions about the existence of political parties, which is important because states that adopted the “winner take all” system of choosing electors were motivated by partisan considerations — the winner-take-all system gives the majority party in the state more power in choosing the President than would a proportional system (like Maine’s or Nebraska’s).
  • Third, the Constitution does not assume that Electors are legally required to vote for the candidate they stood for during the election. Yet many states do have laws that say that Electors must vote for the candidate for whom they stood during the election. The constitutionality of these laws has never been sustained or rejected in the courts.
So when we ask “should” the Electors choose Clinton or Trump, we need to be clear which question we’re asking.
Should the Electors follow historical precedent?
If so, should that be the recent history, the early history, or the overall history of the US?
Should the Electors follow the Constitution?
If so, follow only the specific articles written in the Constitution? or follow an interpretation that accounts for the authors’ assumptions and intentions, as far as we can know them? or follow an interpretation that accounts for current generally-held assumptions? or should each Elector follow her/his own interpretation of the Constitution?
Should the Electors follow the law of the state they represent?
Should the Electors follow their own moral conscience?
I personally don’t think there’s an obvious answer to my Facebook friend’s question: Should they elect Clinton or Trump? It depends on what assumptions one makes. I do think it would be helpful to the discussion of the question if we were each to clarify what assumptions we’re making, because, as we see, there are so many assumptions to make.

Who do you call at 3 a.m.


Who do you call at 3 a.m. when the tears won’t stop

When you hear the sweet song of the razor blade in the bathroom drawer

When you’re hurting inside but don’t know why or how long it’ll last

In the empty apartment alone by yourself with no one else there


Who do you call at 3 a.m. to tell you the words

That’ll give you a little bit of hope to balance the pain

A reason to sleep, and more important, one to wake up

When it really sounds better to close your eyes that final time


Who do you call at 3 a.m. to hold your hand

And kiss your tears, to hug you tight and never let go

When all of your lovers are far in the past and even your family

Can not understand why you’re crying or where you’re lost


What do you do at 3 a.m. when there’s no one to call

Is all that’s left to stay awake and look outside

And wait for the sun to brighten the sky and start the day

Then go to work and try again to stay alive