On my way to Oz recently, I had a long layover in LA, during which I stayed at my friend Vicky’s house in Sherman Oaks. I met Vicky at a Sun magazine retreat about 7 years ago and we’ve seemed like lifetime friends ever since.

It was fitting with our Sun-born friendship that on the very day of my visit there would be, she told me, an annular eclipse – a rare event in which the moon passes across the face of the sun, creating a “ring of fire” effect. It would be late afternoon, peaking (or ringing) around the time I’d be waiting on her front step for my airport shuttle. But, she warned me in her best school-psychologist tone, “The only way to see it is not to look at it.”  She said we must  improvise a “viewer,” possibly  from cardboard and paper.

“We could use film,” I said, thinking back to my last eclipse-viewing, ca. 1979 in Florida, when the more scientifically minded of my classmates created little pinhole boxes that worked like cameras to project the light of the sun (of, actually, the absence thereof, in the form of the moon’s shadow) onto a safe viewing area. Other Floridians, we read in the paper, were viewing the phenomenon through used film strips, the brown, sharp-edged negatives that used to be returned when one had one’s photos quaintly “developed” at a “lab.”

Of course Vicky and I didn’t have time that Sunday to look up a website and figure out how to make a viewing device before it was time for the eclipse. We were busy talking, drinking, talking, eating, walking and talking and then packing in a flurry for my flight. I barely had time to call my sister on the East Coast and advise her of the “annular” eclipse.  She had been having cocktails with her neighbor and my mother and they were all a little tipsy.

“A lunar eclipse?” she said, both to me and to her neighbor, Betty, and other assembled guests. “How exciting!”

“No, not lunar, annular,” I said. “It means ‘ring of fire.’ It’s visible here; you’ll have to Google it to see if you can see it there.”

“There’s a lunar eclipse this afternoon!” she sang out to her friends, implausibly.

“No, there isn’t!” I shrieked. “It’s annular. It’s a ring of the sun showing around the moon!”

“An eclipse of the moon?” she asked me. There was a lot of noise in the background, and some static on the line.

“No, the sun! Look it up,” I said. “Google it, or ask Paul.”  Paul, my brother-in-law, tends to know about scientific phenomenon, having been a state park superintendant for most of his life.

“TellFrank and Paul there’s an annual eclipse!” she sang out, incorrectly.

“It’s once every 120 years,” I said. “Annular, not annual.”

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” she said, slightly annoyed. But she was excited about seeing it, whatever it was, and hung up torun find Paul.

Back in California, we toddled outdoors with my suitcase about 5 pm, Vicky carrying a piece of typing paper and a chunk of cardboard with a pencil-sized aperture.

The air was brownish gray and soft, as if it were dusk, and lots of neighbors were out on their own stoops, peering up at the sun between two high buildings. “Oh, wow, it’s really happening!” I said.

“Don’t look at it!” Vicky proffered the two pieces of paper. “If you look directly at it you’ll go blind.” Vicky is Scottish, and her premonitions of doom have a serious Celtic ring of firey authenticity to them.

“But it’s not bright right now,” I protested. “The moon is over it, see?”

“DON’T LOOK!”  She handed me the cardboard-plus-paper like someone giving a prescription drug to a dying person.

I hummed a few bars from the Manford Man song: “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun; but, Mama, that’s where the fun is!” and we argued briefly about who’d written those lyrics. We agreed that Vicky’s boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen, had done a brilliant job with recording it.

I turned my back on the sun as directed by my hostess, and noted that there was a brilliant and interesting reflection in the window of an apartment nearby. “Can we look at it that way?” I asked.

“Not unless you want to go blind!”

I held up the cardboard and let the sun shine through it onto the paper. There was no result at all of my doing so, as the hole was large enough to allow a full beam of light in, with no lens-creation effect at all. “This is not a pinhole,” I complained. “This is supposed to be a hole made by a pin, not a pencil.”

One of the people standing near us overheard, and said, “A pen-hole? Do you have a pen?”

I didn’t (some writer I am), but he did, it turned out, and I pushed it through the thick cardboard in order to make a smaller,  more lens-like aperture.  Then, with a certain amount of angling of papers and imagination, it was possible to see a vague, half-moon-shaped shadow palely displayed on the paper.  It was hardly the “ring of fire” I’d been hoping for, but it was nonetheless evidence of an astronomical occurrence in progress, and I showed it to Vicky with pride.

She didn’t see it. When I looked again, I didn’t see it, either.

The neighbors, who were squinting at the sun through their eyelashes and not going blind, said they could see something, but they didn’t seem impressed. People in LA have pretty exciting lives and a once-in-120 year event is no biggie.

I gave the neighbor his pen back, and Vicky and I sat and waited for my shuttle, and talked some more, updating and deepening the long and ongoing exchanges that make up our friendship.  In the 18 or so hours I’d spent in LA, we’d caught up on our current views and experiences of The Sun, love, sex, families, her work at school, my writing, and weight-loss strategies that were working for us both. Mama, that’s where the fun was.