Sunday, January 16, 2011


Having Fun Together

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, why should I join the local astronomy club? I can turn on my computer and log onto the Cloudy Nights and go to a virtual astronomy club meeting anytime I want day or night.” Well, you can, Skeezix, but it ain’t the same. It just ain’t the same.

What’s amateur astronomy like? If you are a newbie, the answer to that may seem obvious. You gather up your telescope, tote it into the backyard, and have at it. Company? “Me, myself, and I.” The lone wolf style of amateur astronomy ain’t just practiced by isolated novices, either; it’s the way quite a few old-timers work as well. Not me.

Observing all by your lonesome can occasionally be a relaxing and even spiritual experience. But if that were all I did, I’d prob’ly go stir crazy. Leaving aside my well-known tendency to get spooked at darksites when I’m by myself, I find practicing amateur astronomy with a group of friends is just more fun than doing it alone.

Why? Well, there’s the obvious: a group has an easier time finding a dark site for observing than an individual does; hanging out with a bunch of likeminded folks can help bring your enthusiasm back to a boil when the fires get stoked; and, if public outreach is your bag, it is easiest to bring astronomy to the people in the context of a club. Hell, you may even find you enjoy reading The Reflector.

Those are just the obvious benefits; the ones I preach about often enough that I don’t think I have to do it again—not for a while. What’s less obvious, maybe, is that aside from these tangible things, belonging to an astronomy club offers less tangible benefits that can change your life for the better.

How? Well, there are the non-observing but astronomy-related advantages that come with belonging to a group of friends who share the same passion. Wondering about the new Ethos eyepiece? Is it really worth all them bucks? Not sure to trust what you read on the dadgummed Internet message boards? Joe Spit down to the club has the new eyepiece; he will likely let you look through it, and might even let you borrow it for a spell.

Puzzled newbie? Perhaps puzzled not-so-newbie? Maybe you’ve been around the astro-block a time or three, but all these computers that have invaded our avocation, especially go-to telescope computers, have got you stumped. You might get good advice on the Cloudy Nights or Astromart boards, but nothing beats having a computer savvy friend at the club who can set you right on the observing field with a “No, push this button first”

Contemplating a big project? A massive telescope? An observatory maybe? Something you or you and your significant other can’t handle all by yourselves at one stage or another? Even with the help of Goober next door? You can bet there will be some friends from the club willing to pitch in; especially if a case of beer and some backyard bar-b-que are in the mix.

I could go on about these sorts of things, but the astronomy angle is only half the club equation. Did you notice the word I kept using in the above paragraphs? F-r-i-e-n-d-s. To be honest with y’all, what I remember years down the line is not only—or even mainly—the cool things I’ve seen at the club dark site, but my adventures there with my friends. Often these warm memories don’t have a thing to do with observing. Clubs, you see, can be fun for reasons that have nothing to do with astronomy. If nothing is wrong, they are by nature fun, and there are things you and your mates can do to make them even more funner.

One of the most enjoyable features of the astronomy clubs I’ve belonged to has not been the monthly business meeting, but what I used to call “the Meeting After the Meeting” (MATM). Let’s face it; the bidness meeting can be a bit of a slog. Yeah, you can keep it light, you can keep it short, but there are always those dry-as-dust things you’re gonna have to have: Treasurer’s Report, Meeting Minutes, New Business, yadda, yadda, yadda. If there’s a bit of a reward at the end, though, you and your fellows will have something to look forward to and will keep coming back month after month.

For the clubs I’ve belonged to over the last five decades, that something has been informal gatherings after the official meetings have wrapped up. In my current club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, the MATM is simple: after the motion to adjourn has carried, we stand around chatting for the next quarter to half an hour drinking punch and chomping on cookies. What do we talk about? How’s the wife/husband and the kids? Did you get that new eyepiece? Did I tell you my next door neighbor keeps calling to tell me about the UFOs she keeps seeing? Friendly, informal, personal, fun stuff not suited for the club floor.

The PSAS is small, our meetings are simple, and the fun-to-business ratio is high, so a few minutes of socializing in the classroom where we meet seems to put the cap on it right well, leaving all comers satisfied. If you are in a big club where monthly meetings naturally and necessarily assume a more formal nature, though, you may want to kick it up a notch. In a couple of the outfits I’ve belonged to, the Meeting After the Meeting was somewhat more elaborate.

If you can call adjourning to the corner bar “elaborate.” What we did at a couple of my earlier clubs was hop in our cars after gavel-fall and head to the nearest watering hole for a few brewskies and a few yuks. You would be slap amazed at the far-reaching and mind-blowing cosmic theories some of your fellow amateurs come up with after a few pints of the golden nectar. If you want to really get to know your fellow amateurs, you’ll learn a lot more about ‘em over a can of Dixie Beer in a bar than you ever will over a Nagler eyepiece on an observing field.

There are a few things to beware of if this sort of fun sounds like something you would like to try at your club. Make it a rule that NO CLUB BUSINESS WILL BE DECIDED AT THE MATM. You do not want the members of your club who choose not to dip their beaks thinking you are a SECRET CABAL making club decisions.

Very importantly, choose an appropriate venue for your MATM. You may think the Bonanza Lounge and the Silver Slipper Saloon are the cat’s meow, but some of the more reserved folks may be hesitant to join you at such dives. And younger folks may not be allowed to. An excellent compromise is one of the neighborhood “family” pubs-cum-restaurants like the Ruby Tuesdays (or Applebees, or TGI Fridays, or Shoney's, or any of a similar ilk).

While the PSAS has never resorted to bars and restaurants for our MATMs, we have always had one outing a year, our Annual Holiday Dinner, where everybody has the opportunity to socialize outside the observing field/business meeting milieu. The Holiday Dinner is invariably our first meeting of the year, a Christmas-party – New Year’s Celebration combined, which we hold at a local restaurant.

Sound like a lot of work? It really ain’t. We keep it simple and FUN. We choose a restaurant with wide appeal. For quite a few years, that’s been Ed’s Seafood on the Causeway (across Mobile Bay). We generally try to go a little upscale from the Ruby Tuesdays and Applebees, but still pick a place where everybody will be comfortable. A place where the food is good and where you will feel OK whether you order Scotch and water (Unk, natch) or that elixir of the Southland, Sweet Tea.

But ain’t it a lot of work to set up something like that? Again, we keep it simple. It’s a “Dutch treat” where everybody orders off the menu and settles their own tab. All the club officers have to do is make reservations for a party of however many amateurs we think will show up. We don’t need a backroom or anything fancy or expensive; just a few tables in a corner jammed together.

What do we do there? We eat, we drink, and we have a good time with our friends. Some amateur astronomy does get discussed; this year after one of Ed’s super ribeyes and “several” scotches, Unk undertook to edumacate the diners within earshot about THE BEST STAR PARTIES IN THE COUNTRY. But, no, we don’t do a business meeting. At most, PSAS officers MIGHT make an announcement or two. At most.

Searching back through my memory, what’s left of it, if I had to relate my most treasured memories of the PSAS and the other clubs I’ve belonged to, most of those would relate to star parties. Yeah, star parties are fun to attend as a single or couple, but they are the most fun when you can get together at one as a club. Back in The Day (which is now the 1990s, I reckon), The PSAS travelled to quite a few local and regional star parties as a group. What fun we had.

At the dawn of me and Miss D’s marriage, round about 1995, we heard tell of a new and relatively nearby star party, the Mid South Star Gaze, which was held at a private academy, French Camp Academy, up yonder in north Mississippi, just to the south of the Natchez Trace. We talked this over with our fellow PSASites at the next meeting and soon had a group of eight interested in attending. One bright and blue spring day we set out for the hinterlands of French Camp, Missisippi: Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy!

We were impressed by the site—one of the school’s faculty, Jim Hill, had by blood sweat and tears put together an honest-to-god observatory facility on a hill in a pasture—and the lovely dark skies. I was travelling relatively light, just my Ultima C8, Celeste (a youngster then); my 12.5-inch Dob, Old Betsy, was still in her original Meade StarFinder body and resolutely refused to fit in the Toyota. Having “only” a C8 did not prevent me from seeing almost a surfeit of spring wonders, though.

Almost. I was really getting into M101 on the second night of the star party (the first had been mostly cloudy). As y’all may know, this object’s popular name is “The Pinwheel Galaxy.” Me? I call it the Double Phantom Galaxy. It’s like fall’s M74 but even moreso: a big face-on Sc galaxy that challenges all apertures. Not only is it larger and thus harder than M74, it is set in the (usually) less dark spring skies.

Nevertheless, being young(er) and dumb(er), I dared turn Celeste to this big and sometimes downright elusive island universe. Surprise! There it was, laid out before me in the 12mm Nagler, showing detail I’d never seen visually in any telescope, much less an 8-inch. Not only were the graceful arms more than evident, they were peppered with HII regions (“HII regions out the ying-yang!” I said that night). Adding an OIII filter I’d bought from Rex’s Astrostuff that very morning brought out more of M101’s M42s and Tarantulas. Though the filter dimmed the Whirlpool’s starlight, it made the wee clouds in the spiral stand out better, and I could nearly trace-out the arms by their glowing hydrogen alone. The secret of my success? Superior skies.

French Camp, Mississippi barely had a town to go with it; there was nothing or nobody other than farms in all directions. There wasn’t even an Interstate nearby. Add to that, the air was dry. For a while, anyhow. When you are seeking the dimmest of the dim galaxies and nebulas, “dry” is near-about as important as “dark.” French Camp’s air was surprisingly free of humidity, though that was about to change.

Yep, there we were, Unk and Miss D. and our fellow Possum Swampers, enjoying wonderfully dark skies, voyaging ever deeper into the Great Out There. Until Jim Hill strode onto the field and intoned, “Folks, I hate to bring bad news, but we are under a tornado watch. You might want to think about taking care of your telescopes. NOW.” How could that be? Virgo and Ursa Major’s galaxy fields were just brilliant. One look to the northeast told the tale. Yeah, the sky was dark. Very dark. But I could see a darker line on the horizon. And fingers of lightning were beginning to reach out from this line.

If we’d needed any more convincing, the feel in the air, one of “impending DOOM,” did that. The Possum Swamp contingent, SCT users all, luckily, didn’t just cover our telescopes, we loaded them into our vehicles. In a hurry. We then motored back to the small (but nice) bed and breakfast where we were all staying.

Holed up at the B ‘n B, we gathered in the largest of the rooms and looked at each other. It was barely ten o’clock. What do we do now? Well, believe it or no, Unk had a bottle of this bourbon, this “Rebel Yell” stuff, and he didn’t mind passing it around. Some of our friends had bottles of less…er… “potent” potations, too. Beverages not as closely related, one rascal said, to turpentine.

As the bottles began to pour out, the evening became ever merrier. The weather absolutely howled outside. If the town wasn’t visited by a tornado, it at least got hit by one of the most intense thunderstorms I have ever experienced. But we were snug and dry and the roof was staying put for the moment, so we began to reminisce about our good times together.

Hey, y’all! Do you remember when…

That silly Junie Moon went with us to the DSRSG? She asked Miss Ellie for some pepper to put in her shoes to ward off all the haunts and “boogers” in the woods. Ellie chased her to her car swinging a Dob truss pole like Babe Ruth at bat!

How about how (a certain unnamed expert observer) swore every year at the star party that she would stay up late enough to observe the heck out of M42, but was always snoring in a lounge chair at Orion-rise?

Or the time Pat set his shirt on fire trying to show a novice the ins and outs of Newtonian collimation on the field in the daytime.

How Rod and Miss Dorothy got badly spooked by somebody walking around and around their star party chickie cabin in the wee hours? Unk finally got up the gumption to grab a flashlight and check. Turned out Jason Voorhees was really a very large and very annoyed (when Rod shined the flashlight on him) possum.

Then there was that star party up in Tennessee where they had us sleeping on wooden shelves they called “bunks.” Rod didn’t bring an air mattress, only a thin sleeping bag. And he had to heft George into his top bunk every night…

On and on we went as the lightning flashed and thunder boomed, and I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Yeah, I have some great memories of great things I’ve seen at club observing sessions and star parties, but my warmest memories are of my club friends and the times we’ve had.

I’ve known a few folks over the years that’ve used the astronomy club as a “getaway” from the family. And that’s OK. Some folks—not me—need a break from their loved ones every once in a while, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as the non-astronomy husband or wife is permitted a similar “break,” too. But clubs can be a family affair.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking: get the kids out on a club observing field all night and you will soon have a whole brood of amateur astronomers. Maybe. It happens. Sometimes. Didn’t happen with any of my kids. Hasn’t happened yet, anyway. Be that as it may, maybe dragging little Bud and Sis out onto a dark and cold field and making ‘em stay on it to the wee hours ain’t the best way to bring ‘em into the amateur astronomy fold. Kinder and gentler, y’all.

One kinder and gentler way to expose them to amateur astronomy is taking ‘em along on public outreach missions. Most kids—and teenagers—enjoy being in the in-group, and the experience of helping show and tell the public about the night sky may light a little fire in ‘em. Even if it doesn’t and it is clear your progeny will never be Sky and Telescope subscribers, you can still involve them in the club.

If, like the PSAS, y’all provide punch and cookies at meetings, that may be enough inducement for the younguns and the significant other to tag along once in a while. But we go a step further, and so do quite a few clubs. We schedule a specifically family-oriented event once a year, the Club Spring Picnic.

Doing a picnic is not difficult, especially if, like us, your meeting place is set on a nice patch of land. We are very lucky, as not only does the Mobile Public Schools Environmental Studies Center where we meet possess a nice, wooded suburban campus with a lake, there are picnic tables and, thankfully, given our usual spring weather, a covered picnic pavilion. Don’t have such facilities at your club meeting place? Most towns have similarly equipped city parks. A pavilion at one of these can usually be rented for a nominal or nonexistent fee.

What do we do at the picnic, exactly? Everybody brings a side-item; the club buys catered bar-b-que. We eat, make merry, tell stories, and when the sun begins to go down, set up a few scopes for family members to do a little informal viewing. After a while we hardcore observers say goodbye to husbands/wives and kids and settle in for a night of star gazing to top off a wonderful Saturday.

Bottom-line-a-roony-o to all this here Sunday morning chit-chat? Just that there is more to a club than telescopes and observing. Over the last twenty or so years, the people in my club, have, yes, become my friends. Some of them the best friends I have ever had. Way beyond things like, “Bubba, what do you think of the new 18-inch Meade-a-tron KCT?” to all the stuff real and true friends talk about and do together.

Some people do not like astronomy clubs. I used to be gobsmacked when I’d run into local folks who were obviously dedicated observers, but had never shown up at the club. I’m not surprised anymore. I’ve come to the realization that some amateurs are just not “joiners.” For one reason or another they don’t like clubs, or at least astronomy clubs. I guess I can understand. B-U-T… Given my life in astronomy clubs over the last 46 years (I count our little teenage Backyard Astronomy Society as my first club), I cannot help but pity them, muchachos.

2020 Update

Do I have some wonderful memories of my 25 years or so with my club? As you can see from the above, I sure do. Unfortunately, a few years ago my visits to astronomy club meetings became fewer and fewer. I got to the point where the only way I could make myself go was to say, "Well, if you go, you can stop at the (nearby) Applebee's first for a couple of drinks and some fun." Fun I wasn't having at the club anymore. Eventually, I stopped going altogether and I basically disassociated myself from the outfit.

Why? It just wasn't the same. Many of the people who'd made the club for me had moved on--to other pursuits, to other places, or, sadly, to the Great Out There. There was little doubt the organization had been on a downhill slide for at least a decade. I was tired of contributing what I could to keep it going for little in return in either appreciation or respect.

A final reason? The way I enjoy astronomy has changed over the last five years. I now prefer solitary contemplation of the cosmos to group observing. That doesn't mean you won't find me out on the old airfield that serves as a club observing spot once in a while. But I can't imagine sitting through a meeting again.

I still support astronomy clubs, though. If you've got a good one, cherish it.

Hey Rod,

I think Whirlpool Galaxy = M51, not M101.

Love your blog,

Roberto Abraham
Right you are...I MEANT...Pinwheel...I am very lucky to have such observant readers!
Great article and right on the money. I've mentioned it on the Northeast Florida Astronomical Society Facebook page.

Hope to see you at the Chiefland Spring Star Party.

- Art Russell
HI Art:

I hope to too...the only thing that might stop me is a great big Navy ship who says she wants to go on sea-trials. :-(
I guess one of the reasons for some dedicated amateur astronomers not being a club joiner is to avoid personality clashes with certain regular joiners. But still, they should try to find at least one or two person in the club that clicks with them and observe with them occasionally. Personally, I throughly enjoy the spiritual experience of observing alone as well as with a large group of friends or just with a couple of astro buddies who stay just blocks away from me.
I am a non-meeting goer but enjoy the camaraderie of star parties and being with others who enjoy the hobby. You hit the nail-on-the-head describing the attributes of joining or being with astronomy friends. Well done, Rod. John Huntsberger, Austin Astronomical Society
Glad to read that you've been to French Camp! Apparently I was living right down the Trace in Kosciusko when you visited. But it wasn't until this past winter that I found out it hand an OBSERVATORY! I remember watching hale bopp while living there as a kid. Climbing to the top of a water tower and staring and staring and staring. Some of the absolute best skies you will find to observe. IF! you can dodge the humidity.

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