Friday, June 27, 2014

“I want to just look up at the stars…,” Ben Stiller as Michael in Reality Bites

The hour is late. The neighborhood quiet. Before climbing into my bed to close the day, I make a final trip to the recycling bin that my son has hauled to the curb for next-morning’s pick-up. After tossing the day’s newspaper in the bin, I stand on the sidewalk and look up. Up past the boughs of the massive live oak that has commanded this spot of ground for many decades or perhaps a century, I gaze at the points of light dotting the blackness. Stars. Stars scattered above the housetops and trees from horizon to horizon. So many stars. Some appear in clusters, some set apart. Some bright, some dim. Some only appear after a few minutes of my eyes adjusting to the dark. But I know there are many, many more out there. The light of a streetlamp and the glow from the nearby highway obscure the multitude that congregate in the vast expanse over my head. But I know the stars are up there.
Michael & Leilana talk about the stars in a scene from Reality Bites
I’ve always loved stars. I remember ordering a book about the sky from one of the Scholastic Book Club flyers distributed monthly at my elementary school. In college, I signed up for an Astronomy class to fill the science requirement for my degree. My campus contained a small planetarium, and, even though my class met during the day, I thought we would at least visit the facility; perhaps even be given the chance to return at night to wonder at the celestial realm above us. But, no. And the class instruction was also a disappointment –a plethora of graphs, a myriad of charts. Our textbook was severely bereft of majestic photographs. There’s a scene in the 1994 film Reality Bites in which Winona Ryder’s Leilana and Ben Stiller’s Michael, on their first date and sitting in his convertible with the top down, talk about their shared love of astronomy. Michael laments that his college astronomy class was too much math and not enough just looking at the stars. Leilana agreed, and my sentiment is the same. The classes are nothing like the planetarium field trips of my childhood.
I recall visiting the planetarium several times.  I loved leaning back in the cushioned, reclining chairs as the lights slowly dimmed, peaceful music played, a soothing voice spoke, and the stars begin to make their appearance in the sky – so, so many of them. A little, white arrow slid around the heavens directing my eyes to the appropriate spots in the majesty overhead. The voice spoke of the Milky Way while the arrow swept along its length. Years later, on a beach in Bermuda, I saw for the first time the true Milky Way. The soothing voice was replaced by the raucous cacophony of a chorus of tree frogs serenading me while I sank my toes into the pink sand and marveled at the milky trail spilled across the velvet black sky.
Stars Appearing over Bermuda
Milky Way
The Milky Way did not disappoint unlike my experience with Halley’s Comet. “First appearance since 1910! Only chance to see it in your lifetime!” the experts squawked. So I made a pilgrimage with a boyfriend away from the bright lights of Birmingham, Alabama. We parked his truck among a line of other pilgrims’ vehicles on the side of U.S. Highway 280 in Shelby County. He hauled his telescope from the bed of the truck and set it up in the grass. I shivered in the February-cold and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark while he located the comet with binoculars and then pointed his telescope at the object. “Okay, have a look!” he called. Despite having been told what to expect, I couldn’t help be disappointed. Just a tiny smudge marred the spot - not a brightly burning head trailing a glowing streak through the sky like all the cartoon versions of comets. Oh, well.
Halley's Comet in 1910 as seen from Earth
Halley's Comet in 1986 as seen from Earth
I’ve experienced other astronomical disappointments throughout the years, usually involving meteor showers. I’ve followed the instructions to the letter:
Go out at 2:12 a.m. Face west by southwest. Fix your eyes on a spot at a 42 degree angle from the horizon. Then follow a line from there into the constellation Hebredibes. Locate nebular MJ-X4R which will, of course, be very faint. Stare at that location until your eyes cross and tears of boredom roll down your checks. Then, at 3:48 a.m., be prepared to be amazed as meteors streak across the sky at a rate of as many as 1 every 12 minutes! Of course, there may not be that many. And if the sky is cloudy, you might not see any. And we can’t be sure there will be as many as the last time Earth encountered this shower 97 years ago.
My, my, such fun! But next time I think I’ll do something much more exciting - like sleep.  
            There was one astronomical event that turned out not to be a bust that I shared with my Mama. An annular solar eclipse was going to happen with prime viewing right over Alabama. We read about how to make a paper plate viewer to see the event. On the appointed day and time we went into our backyard, carrying the paper plate thingy with us. There, on a sheet of white paper held beneath a small hole we had made in the center of the plate, we watched as the moon’s shadow began to bite away the sun’s disk. We were chattering excitedly about what we were seeing when a voice boomed from the other side of the fence, “DON’T LOOK AT IT!” Our dear neighbor obviously cared enough to shout a warning so that we didn’t burn away our retinas. Despite the fright which caused us to drop the paper plate thingy, we rated our attempt at seeing the event a success.
Path of Eclipse

             I’ve watched lunar eclipses, too, through the years. Seems there is always something going on with the moon. I’ve seen Blood Moons, Harvest Moons, and Orange Moons caused by a haze of African Saharan dust blown across the Atlantic. At least twice a year, the weatherman tells me to go out and gaze upon the largest moon I’ll get to see for the next 100 years. I look up, and the man in the moon looks down on me and smiles.
Harvest Moon
Blood Moon

            My 10-year-old daughter shares my fascination with the night sky. For a present, she requested The Great Courses’ “Our Night Sky.” She watched each of the 12 thirty minute lessons intently. Then grasping the free planisphere that accompanied the DVD, she led me outside into the wintry night. We turned the wheels to line up our position, and then she excitedly pointed out the constellations over our heads. Her favorite was Orion (“Oh-Ryan,” she says), because he was the easiest to spot, even without the planisphere.
The Constellation Orion

I like finding Orion for that reason, too, and I can usually locate Venus, though I can’t always swear I’m right. I think there are few things more embarrassing, astronomically-speaking, than being certain that I’ve found a particular planet or star and then realizing that it’s moving and what I’m really looking at is a satellite or, worse yet, an airplane. Yes, airplanes and even satellites zoom through the sky much faster than the movement of the planets and stars in the night sky.
There are all sorts of man-made stuff to see in the sky now. I’ve tracked the Space Station as it passed over my house. The viewing was especially poignant because the vessel contained an astronaut who is my neighbor in the metropolitan area of Houston where I live just minutes from the Johnson Space Center.  My little city of El Lago has been home to many astronauts through the years; 47 at last count. (See our Astronaut Wall of Fame at Neil Armstrong lived a few streets away from my street when he took that first step on the moon. Ed White, the first American to walk in space and who died tragically in the Apollo 1 fire,  was his next-door-neighbor, and the elementary school my daughter attends bears his name. Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, also lived in El Lago. Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 and portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie, made El Lago his home for a time, as did Story Musgrave who orbited Earth 278 times traveling over 7 million miles in 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes. The park around the corner from my house is named for Ray McNair, an El Lago resident who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. All these men worked among the stars, dreamed of the stars, and risked their lives to fly among them. They are most assuredly stars themselves.
We use the “star” designation for many things now, from “All-Star” athletes to celebrity “Stars” who are often famous for nothing more than being famous for 15 minutes – less than a blink in time compared to the length of time the real stars have been shining. Movies, books, music, TV shows and a myriad of other things are rated with stars. Teachers place coveted gold stars on student’s excellent school papers. Books, websites, magazine articles and seminars will teach us all how to be star students and stars at work. Casey Kasem, a radio star and voice of Shaggy in Scooby Doo, admonished us at the end of every Top 40 Countdown to “keep [our] feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” The stars he meant were goals, dreams, and hopes that give us a reason to get out of bed each day and work, plan, strive, and plod through our days on this Earth. Meanwhile the stars are overhead, out-of-reach of our hands; most out-of-reach of our eyes. “Keep reaching for the stars.” The things I reach for are here on this earth - the intangibles and the tangibles: good health, happiness, financial security, hugs from my children, a good book, a hot cup of coffee, a bowl of bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and other cozy-warm things.
So standing on the sidewalk by the recycling bin in the deep of a muggy, Texas night, I pause and look up at the sky. I can’t identify even one of the summer constellations, but there are so many stars. I’m here on this Earth for now. And there are so many stars over my head. So many stars shining their light for me to see in the dark. So many stars. And I just want to look at them.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

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