Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dog Astronomy

Tomorrow is my wife's birthday.  As usual, I have no idea what to get her.
Part of that problem is that I really outdid myself six years ago this night.  I brought home two puppy dogs that would become an integral part of our lives.  Actually it wasn't all me, we both picked them out, but it was in the spirit of her birthday.
The past six years have been full of work and frustration, pockmarked with moments of sheer terror and copious amounts of fur everywhere (seriously, how the hell does it get in the kitchen cabinets???)  And I would not trade it for anything.
These dogs have humbled me with their love and loyalty, teaching me the true meaning of the phrase, "man's best friend."  They have also taught me something else or rather reconnected me with a subject I love.

If you've ever had a puppy, you know that one of the most arduous aspects of its first few months with you is the housebreaking process.  You drag them outside in all forms of weather, hoping that they get the hint.  You wait around for what seems like hours on end, hoping for that little poo or piddle where you can heap praise upon them.  On one November night in 2005, I was doing just that.  Waiting.  Waiting.  Looking up at the sky.  And waiting some more.
While looking up, I noticed an intensely bright light in the sky to the west.  I figured it to be the landing lights of an airliner as O'Hare airport is not far away and our skies are clogged with aircraft.  The night was completely clear and I expected to see the underside of the fuselage soar overhead in a few seconds.  The light, however, did not move.  It just kept hanging there, beaming out with great intensity.  After a while, I realized that I must be looking at the planet Venus.

Before the dogs, I had not gone outside at night too much.  I would drive to wherever I needed to go, walk from the car to the structure, and that, as the say, would be that.  Waiting for a dog to poop gave me all kinds of time to stare up at the night sky and stargaze.  Going on became a ritual, checking to see which planets would be visible at different times of the year.  I was able to see the space shuttle and the ISS cross over this patch of sky on multiple occasions.  If you ever get the opportunity to witness this, the ISS I mean, do so.  You won't regret it.  I've seen meteorite displays ranging from quick spurts of light to full-blown fireballs dripping debris.  I've watched satellites move as tiny pin dots in a perfectly straight line across the black of the night, outrunning anything else in the sky.  I've watched those same satellites flare from sunlight hitting their solar panels, causing what looks like a sustained explosion in the night that then suddenly winks back down to nothing.  I've stared at the rusty light of Mars, pretending I could see right down to its surface and thereby prove once and for all the presence of water.  Or so I fantasized.  On the best nights the cloud cover would be nil and light pollution would be all I'd have to deal with.  Looking straight up gave the illusion of entering space.  With metempirical whimsy I would pick a single star and imagine what planets might orbit it...and what life might exist circling that distant sun. 

I have loved astronomy since I was a kid.  At the time of the dogs' arrival at our house, I hadn't thought about that particular science that much.  I was busy at the time working my way through grad school.  I had epistemology, subtext, and stylistics far more on my mind than planet-sighting, constellations, and distant nebulae.  But having the opportunity to be outside under the stars again, frustrated as I might have been that the dogs wouldn't do anything or worse...just wanted to goof around and say, dig out a nice oval around a sewer pipe, it really placed me back on a path of discovery.  So I will be giving my dogs an extra hug tonight.  Thanks to them, I once again know the simple pleasure of a star-filled sky.

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