Thursday, June 29, 2023
Issue 593: The Astronomer Looks at 70
since I was three feet tall.
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.
I have been drunk now for over two weeks,
I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks,
But I've got to stop wishin',
Got to go fishin', I'm down to rock bottom again.
Just a few friends, just a few friends.
I did this ten years ago on my birthday, muchachos, took stock of me and that avocation, amateur astronomy, I’ve loved so well over the years. Why am I doing it again? 60 just didn’t feel that momentous, not in the way 50 had. And not much had really changed with me between 50 and 60. 70? That’s different. Way different.
That summer I was 60, summer 2013, Unk carried on merrily as I normally do. I was still chasin’ the countless faint fuzzies of the Herschel Project, jaunting down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village at the drop of a hat. And, having retired just three months before my birthday, I was really livin’ the life. Well, or so your old Uncle thought…
You are not reading this exactly on my birthday. I may provide an update on the activities of my Big Day—such as it may be—three weeks hence, but I am writing on this dadgummed subject today for two reasons. First, I kinda want to get it out of the way.
Secondly, I hope—hopes I tells you!—July will be a month of observing. June was anything but. When it has not been cloudy or stormy (most often the latter), it’s been boiling hot. Looking over at the weather station readout here in the Batcave, I see the “real-feel” temperature is 114F right now. And, worse, it hasn’t been cooling off much at night. Oh, and while it hasn’t been overwhelming, we here in Possum Swamp are getting some of the smoke that has plagued our Yankee brothers and sisters. Not the sorta weather that makes you anxious to haul a scope into the back 40, that’s for sure.
I’m hoping this weather will pass, and I’ll be able to give you Part II of the article on the Digital Optica Bluetooth interface for Autostar. And maybe even do some deep sky touring with the ETX125, Miss Charity Hope Valentine. After that? Gotta be Unk’s yearly M13. Need I say more?
Hokay…nuthin' to it but to do it... What has the last decade wrought concerning that rascal, your old Uncle Rod? As above, following a great 60th birthday, which consisted of mucho Rebel Yell, Mexican food, and gifts aplenty, Unk settled in to face another decade of trips around our friendly G2V star. And that is just what he did at first. Yep, nothing changed, just Unk continuing on his merry way. Until he wasn’t.
Funny thing…the changes Unk experienced over the next years came in with a comet and finally went out with one. What I experienced was rather sudden. One night in early 2015 I was out in the backyard imaging Comet Lovejoy, who was no Great Comet, but looked very good in the eyepiece and especially in images. I was mindin’ me own bidness as the light frames rolled in when, suddenly, it came to me: “Hey, wait a minute! Where am I? Is this where I’m supposed to be? How the hell did I get here?!”
In retrospect, I don’t believe my epiphany, if that is what it was, had anything to do with the comet. I believe it was more a rather unlooked-for early retirement and a move out to the suburbs where Unk was plunked down amidst a lot of other retirees. A change of scene and a sudden feeling of “What comes now? Nothing?” threw me for a loop. I had a rather rough year thereafter, but I had help, and to everybody who helped me out of my midlife crisis (you know who you are), THANK you!
During this time, it wasn’t like Unk gave up observing or anything. In fact, a friend of mine began calling 2016, “Uncle Rod’s farewell tour.” I was everywhere speaking at star parties…Maine in the northeast, West Viriginia in the east, Wisconsin in the far north, Oregon in the west, and all points in-between. And I didn’t just do star parties as an astronomy writer and educator; I went as a “civilian.”
Or did until two whammies hit. The first was silly old Unk falling off the house. I was up there adjusting an HF antenna and got to feeling a little shaky. It was 2019 and I was “only” 65 going on 66, but I suddenly felt like I was not up to scampering around on top of a house (much less a tower). I climbed down, saying to myself, "Get one of your ham buddies to come help." If I’d just left it there, all would have been well. Alas, Unk got to thinking (disaster is always in the offing when he does that) “All the younger OMs have to work. What if I can’t get anybody out here till the weekend? I left some tools up there. Best get them down!”
Stupidly, instead of placing the ladder on the ground, it was on the deck. I’d got away with that a bunch of times. Why should today be any different? I got the tools and headed down. I put one foot on the ladder and then the other. Down went the ladder and on top of it went Unk to the tune of about 15 feet. To cut to the chase, I spent a week in the hospital and was convalescing for months.
And that was, to this point, the end of Unk’s star partying. Turned out my “Farewell Tour” really was that. Or…you know what? Maybe not. My old-time favorite local star party, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze is coming up this fall, and suddenly I want to go again. Maybe.
There are a couple of impediments to that, or even—sometimes—to me observing in the ol’ backyard. I seem to have developed a rather strong and unreasoning fear of falling in the dark. Maybe this isn’t logical, but it’s the way I feel. Sometimes. I also notice I am very much less willing to bear the cold. At 60F I feel uncomfortable indeed. And yet…and yet…the idea of observing under the dark skies of Mississippi’s piney woods again has grabbed me in a big way. We shall see. Till then I shall make do with the backyard.
“But what was the SECOND WHAMMIE, UNK? WHAT WAS THAT?” The pandemic, of course, and that was hell. As 2019 ended, I was feeling more like myself than I had in a long while. I told more than one person, “You know, I FEEL YOUNG AGAIN!” I was at Heroes Sports Bar and Grill Regularly, hoo-hawing till all hours—well 10 or 11pm anyhow. Then <BOOM> we were all trapped at home for over a year. I was afraid all those hours with little to do would bring on that more intense version of the blues, the MEAN REDS, but it didn’t.
But I didn’t fully realize it till the lockdown was well and truly in the rearview mirror. Earlier this year, a night almost exactly 8 years down the line from that strange evening with Lovejoy. I was out having a look at the briefly loved “Green Comet,” C/2022 E3 ZTF, when it came to me, “Hey! What the—?! This feels like old times! I feel just like MESELF AGAIN!
When I say there were plenty of people who helped me through the doldrums those years ago, I include astronomy people in their number. Some of those I’ve known in our wonderful avocation were instrumental in me righting my keel. But “people” as in "astronomy club," my old astronomy club?
Even before my minor existential crisis, I’d pretty much given up on the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society. Oh, as the decade of my 60s began, Miss Dorothy and I were still attending the monthly meetings. Howsomeever, we eventually found we had to include a stop at the nearby Applebees for drinks before the meeting to induce ourselves to attend. Eventually, Miss D. was like, “The astronomy club meeting is tonight; are we going to that?” Unk is very much a creature of habit, and I’d been at PSAS meetings every month since 1993, but I finally had to say, “Nope.” I put in a lot of years with the club. And by the past decade, the fact was I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I shall just leave it at that.
I don’t know I am alone in that experience. I hear the same from folks who were very much into the club scene for most of their astronomy careers. The fact is, even more than amateur radio, our hobby is aging. I don’t even want to think about the way the demographic skews now. Clubs are mostly smaller and less active and less enthusiastic. Might a new generation come in and revitalize astronomy clubs? Perhaps.
That oft-feared ground truth? The babyboom generation came along at a special time, during the age of Apollo. A time when everybody was space crazy, many wanted a telescope to see those wonders with their own eyes, and wanted to hang out with those who shared their passion. I don’t see another generation of people like that coming. Not in the numbers we had.
Uncle Rod is the wrong person to ask about this. I have pretty much eschewed new-fangled scopes and accessories. Hell, I wouldn’t know an ASAIR (that everybody and their cat is mad for lately) from the window air-conditioner in the Batcave. Oh, I exaggerate a bit. I do keep up mainly through reviewing products for my Sky & Telescope Test Reports. If it weren’t that, I’d be a real Luddite.
If you are a regular reader, you know I thinned the scope herd some years ago. Some of it I could no longer handle post-2019. And some of it just wasn’t used anymore. What I am left with is two GEMs, an Advanced VX and a Losmandy GM811; a small altazimuth mount; an Edge 800 C8, 5-inch, 80mm and 66mm APOs; some nice achromats; Zelda, my 10-inch Chinese dob; and Charity Hope Valentine; my ETX. Now that might sound like a lotta telescopes to you, but trust me, it is NOTHING like the long-lost days of Chaos Manor South.
The only new telescope that has come here in a very long time is a very modest one indeed, Tanya, a Celestron 4.5-inch Newtonian I stumbled upon in a Goodwill store. But I am content. Even after the cull, I have more telescopes than I use. What gets used most? Often, it’s not a scope at all, but my time-honored Burgess Optical 15x70 binoculars.
Should I talk about telescope companies? Things have not changed much. Except that post-pandemic the crazy-low prices for scopes are, like anything else, a thing of the past. I still can’t believe I got Zelda (a 10-inch GSO dob), two eyepieces (one a decent 2-incher), a laser collimator, a cooling fan, a two-speed focuser, and a RACI 50mm finder delivered for 500 bucks. I don’t expect those days will come again, but telescopes are still quite inexpensive.
To be specific about telescope companies? Celestron is what it is. They are a Chinese company with the strengths and weaknesses inherent in that. Meade? They are in some sense an American company again, now being owned by Telescope and Binocular Center (Orion) after a legal victory against Meade’s Chinese masters (or really “master,” which was really, as I long thought, Celestron owner Synta). They only make telescopes in Mexico, still, and most of their gear is imported from China. But, yeah, a heartening sign.
And back to your Unk’s journey down the timestream…
I’m 70, or soon will be, Lord willin’. When I get up in the morning, I feel every bit of that. The whistling past the graveyard of the couple of years before the pandemic, the "I FEEL YOUNG!" stuff, is history. But you know what? Yes, the pandemic changed everything and much not for the good. But I feel OK. I am pressing on. I’ve got two more books under my belt. I continue with Sky & Telescope, and next semester I am going to increase my teaching load.
Hell, I may be over the hill, muchachos, but I am not quite ready to give up, collapse, and roll down the opposite slope and into oblivion.