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Elan M.


The One Handed Astronomer

It all started as a sort of a joke. I was wondering what to get my wife for her birthday some five or six years ago. As usual, I hadn't a clue. But I had some spare time on my hand and some lose change rattling in my pocket. So on one sunny autumn afternoon I found myself heading to the mall.

As the saying goes: never send a man by himself to a shopping center for you never know what he'll come back with. On this particular occasion, I returned home from my hunting trip with a rather large and colorful box, which I proudly presented to my wife. She spent a couple of minutes unpacking it and admiring its contents before announcing that even though the idea was noble and the intention (she was sure) pure, I had, in fact, just bought myself a telescope!

What can a 'true man' do when confronted by such strong emotions? Should he kneel on the floor and beg for forgiveness? Should he swallow his pride and hurry back to the mall and try his luck again?

No, no way! Our macho man was not about to humiliate himself in private and most surely not in public. As I saw it, there lay before me only two good options: either commit Hara-kiri right there on the spot or become an astronomer. Having a strong (some would say insatiable) will to live as well as a strong aversion to blood; I chose astronomy to be my métier, though, in hindsight, I might have done myself a favor by choosing option "A".

As you can imagine, things deteriorated rather rapidly from there. I found myself standing on the roof of our house night after night squinting at the heavens through my new toy. And what a wonderful toy it was! With its three and a half inches of aperture, one eyepiece, whizzing plastic gears and electronics, my little ETX-90 was a real thing of beauty, probably meant more to be looked at rather than through. Still, I was convinced that the universe was about to reveal its secrets to me instantaneously, not withstanding my shear foolishness, and total lack of knowledge in anything remotely astronomical. Not to mention a myriad other annoying details such as the grove of oaks that hid a good chunk of the night sky, the bright light emanating from my neighbors window, and the ball of whitish haze that dominated the one treeless horizon in the direction of San Francisco. Still, in spite of all odds, or maybe because of them, I was having a blast seeing my first star clusters and nebulas.

Since I was basically clueless I turned for help to the trusted instruction manual. One piece of advice that caught my attention was: "Join an astronomy club, attend a star party". Well, this sounded like sage advice. There may be others like me standing on other rooftops seeking to solve the same eternal questions: Who are we and what are we doing here?

So it happened that I became a card-carrying member of the San Francisco Amateur Astronomy club. No longer did I have to observe alone. I bid good-bye to my perch on the roof with its obstacles and limitations and, in the company of my newfound friends, started observing from the flanks of venerable Mount Tam that suffered from most of the same obstacles and limitations sans my neighbors' annoying bright light. One quick glance at my fellow astronomers was all I needed to convince me that I was in a league of my own, and a very minor league at that. Surrounded on all sides by telescopes the size of the Transamerica building, me and my mini-scope felt like imposters.

If I was to hold my own, a return trip to the mall started to look more and more inevitable. Should I confront my demons and ask the same salesperson that only a short while ago told me without blinking an eye that my scope is: "all I'll ever need", to sell me a bigger and better one that will allow me to join the telescope lineup on the mountain without being the laughing stock of the club? Should I demand a written guarantee that it is indeed "all I'll ever, ever, ever need"? After much internal debate, and in order to avoid any chance of more humiliation at the mall, I went on-line and ordered a new scope from a dealer on the other side of the continent.

My new 8-inch Meade go-to scope was indeed all I ever needed or dreamed about (at least for a while). It certainly gave me a dose of respectably I so urgently needed and the heavens started to look a tad more like what I saw when I briefly glanced through other peoples' scopes. Even though there remained a few purists that found it annoying to listen to the not-so-soft hum of the telescope gears in the stillness of the night, I knew I was in the 'groove'. Many of the celestial objects that beforehand were beyond or just barely visible, suddenly came into sharp focus. Not only the new scopes but also a seeming endless stream of add-ons and gadgets (to bolster my self image) made astronomy so much more enjoyable and fun. The days of few eyepieces were long gone and it seemed like there was always something else to acquire that will make the experience 'perfect'. I felt as though I had finally arrived. The only obstacle to having a perfect night of observing was, as the saying goes: location, location, location!

So, each summer I joined the 'mass migration' of amateur astronomers that, like the now extinct herds of buffalo that once moved across the prairies, roam the backcountry looking for the perfect dark sky. From Lake Sonoma to Shingletown at the foot of Mount Lassen, on to the Oregon Star Party at the remote high desert of central Oregon, to the California Star Party at Lake San Antonio in southern Monterey County, I plied my trade. Some of those pitch-dark star-filled nights under the glow of the heavenly river of milk, were indeed both spectacularly beautiful and awe inspiring. They were the hours and minutes that gave the whole enterprise of Amateur Astronomy its significance and true meaning.

Two full years with an eights-inch scope for a 'true', red blooded, and still eager astronomer is two years too long. Aperture fever was settling in once again with no relief in sight. Until I checked the for-sale ads and found myself a ten-inch monster that I hoped would calm my fervor. I drove halfway to L.A. and returned home that same day in the pouring rain with my new 'fat baby'. It went on raining for day after day until it was time for me to go back to Israel to visit my family and friends without ever having a chance to use my new scope.

I returned home three weeks later all ready and eager to finally go out and find out what I had got. But it wasn't to be: three days after my return catastrophe struck in the form of a major stroke that happened during the night.

This time I found myself in the hospital instead of on a mountain and after five days in the intensive care unit, I was farmed out to a rehab facility where all they could do to help was to introduce me to the wonderful contraption named a "wheel chair" and provide me with a plastic brace for my lame leg. Once or twice a day, the nice doctor came by to confirm that I was still mostly alive even though my right side was completely paralyzed and I could hardly speak or make much sense.

But even during those horrific first weeks astronomy was not totally forgotten. The best place in the rehab center was an outdoor patio where one could escape the hospital-like atmosphere. It was on this patio that my new friend the wheel chair and I spent most of our 'spare' time. One evening, after what must have passed for dinner, I went outside to enjoy the mostly obscured view of the setting sun when the security guard on duty passed by and, without looking, locked the door behind me. I was left outside in the gathering darkness to do what I craved most: a star party for one!

That was nearly two years ago. Since then not a whole lot has changed, even though many who know me well will beg to differ with this, somewhat gloomy, assessment. My right hand is still mostly non-functional and my leg is still in a brace. But I can speak, oh boy can I speak. By trial and error and a lot of stubbornness and perseverance, I have taught myself how to manage with only my left hand. To my great surprise and delight even my telescopes can be managed and operated with one hand alone.

As to astronomy, not a whole lot has changed either. Most of the stars are still twinkling in their places as far as I can tell. On moonless nights you can still find my astronomy buddies and me stargazing on Mount Tam through my telescope though, surely, with a renewed sense of awe and appreciation.


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