Monday, February 18, 2013

My Space Jam, Part One: Dad, Are You Space? Yes, Now We Are Family Again.

When I was five-years-old, my father marched me outside into our giant front yard early one summer night. The neighborhood we lived in was unincorporated, so there were no street lights. The sky was totally clear- dark blue with little sparkles slowly appearing as it got darker. I knew they were stars. I knew stars were in the sky and that the sun was a big star that came out during the day. But that was about all I had gleamed so far. Kindergarten was still three months away.

My dad pointed his giant hand to a section high in the sky, over our neighbor's massive trees. My head turning all the way up like Peanuts cartoon character as I tried to see where he was pointing.

"Do you see the ones that aren't so bright?" He asked me. I squinted then relaxed my eyes, noticing how many more appear as my eyes further adjusted to the darkness. Slowly, I started to see the difference in brightness and slight differences in color.

"Which ones?" I asked, trying to see where he was pointing. He was at least two feet taller than me at the time, throwing off the perspective of where he appeared to be pointing. A problem that still persists when we star gaze together, despite how I only need to wear high heels to be as tall as him now.

He told me to look for three stars that look bigger but not so bright. After a few minutes of searching, I found them. A triangle of dull blurry stars. One big and two so tiny I almost can't see them.

"Those are planets." He explained. I had no reference for this word. "We live on a planet," He elaborated when I ask what that was, "It's Earth. The world. Everything you see that isn't in the sky is on Earth" My five-year-old mind focused on how planet sounds like "plant" and I imagined that my neighborhood existed on a leaf of a giant potted ficus. My mind was blown.

My father continued, overwhelming my mind. He pointed to the big one "That one is called Venus. If we were on Venus, that's how Earth would look in the sky to us. That's how far away it is." My five-year-old brain was trying to bend its logic to make it so ficus plants became little circles of light when viewed from far away.

Then, he threw everything even more out of whack by explaining that the smaller one to the bottom, Jupiter, is actually much much bigger than Venus and Earth. It only looks so small because it's so far away. My mind had just decided that Earth and Venus must be the biggest ficus plants in existence and he immediately went and trampled the limits I had set on the universe by saying that Jupiter is so big that Earth would be ant-size in comparison.

"If those are planets, then what are the other stars?" I asked. Were they all planets? Were they all house plants sitting around and shining in a gigantic room? My interest was piqued, to say the least.

Months later, my kindergarten teacher would put up a long poster on the wall of our trailer-turned-classroom that was roughly our solar system at that time- finally giving me more of a reference and removing the ficus plants from my mental image of the celestial bodies.

The poster showed the nine recognized planets (as this was 1991/1992) but had them in the traditional order from the Sun. I remember the teacher explaining that, in reality, Pluto -which was a full-fledge planet at the time- was currently 8th furthest from the sun but that, most of the time, it was the 9th furthest. Apparently, between 1979 and 1991 (and probably all the way to 1999), no one really felt the need to make posters with Pluto and Neptune swapped, despite how they were for twenty friggin' years.

But by the time my kindergarten teacher put up that poster, I had already been exposed to a few 3-D solar system models and a globe or two. My "we live on a ficus plant" mental image had been corrected to a more "There are giant lines going across the Earth so we all know where we live" view. Although, again thanks to the "we don't need to buy whole new maps/globes/ect!" mentality of 1991 did lead to some confusion regarding how some maps of the world said "Russia" but most of them said U.S.S.R. over most of the eastern hemisphere. And the teachers just sort of... ignored it. So that there were still maps sporting the U.S.S.R in 1997. I swear this was a very well funded public school district.

I may have also been convinced that all the planets went around the sun just like the rings of Saturn went around it and at roughly the same pace, despite the difference in orbit size. Because 3-D solar system models can still be lacking in major details.

And then, there was the planetarium trip. As I mentioned, this was a pretty well-funded public school district and the high school had a planetarium that actually remains one of the nicer ones I've been to in my life. And almost every year, there was a trip to the high school's planetarium and it was amazing. Almost anything can be amazing if you give a booming voice over a P.A. system a bit of an echo while talking about the universe, mind you.

Finally, things started to make more sense. I knew why Venus was so bright and why Mars had been so dim despite being closer than Jupiter. I understood their movements through space a little bit more and how those translated into dots in the sky. And the last few bits of ficus-based theory were finally swept out of my mind, replaced with amazing balls of rock and gas and clouds.

And in that one little afternoon trip to the planetarium,  I also became obsessed with constellations. That night, I made my dad go stand in the yard with me again and I looked for the big and little dipper- knowing that if I just found the big one, I could then find the little one as well as the North Star. Of course, later on I would constantly forget which one contained the North Star, despite how I should've been able to take cues from, you know, which direction was NORTH. Usually, my dad would find Orion, as it would take me until my teens to be able to quickly find the belt pattern of the constellation. I still, to this day, cannot naturally find the Pleiades/Seven Sisters. I'm not the greatest as pattern recognition, it seems. But I damn well tried!

In the twenty plus years since, he and I have spent numerous evenings staring up into the sky looking for various celestial events. The internet has actually made it a tad more difficult, as it's very easy for someone to forward you an article that says "this awesome thing is happening TONIGHT!" and it turns out it actually happened like three years ago during a thunder storm. But we still try. Even when in different parts of the country, he'd make sure to send me an email so that we could share the experience despite not being near each other.

Every time, I'm reminded of that night when he pulled me outside in the dark to see a little triangle of dots in the sky and how my view of everything was changed from that moment on. How it expanded my imagination and knowledge all at once with just him wanting to make sure that I saw something as more than just dots in the sky and have me understand that it was something important and amazing. Make it so I never again looked up at the stars at just thought they were specks of nothing that didn't matter.

When I started to write this, I made sure to go searching for when that specific event happened. I knew it had to be 89-91, as I remember it being before I started school, but my memory was hazy. In doing so, I found the beautiful picture by Alan Dyer that is at the top of this post. Taken in Southern Wisconsin in June of 1991- not far off from how I remembered it looking in Northern Illinois. He has many other pictures on line, I really recommend taking a peek at the others at Amazing Sky. I also found only a handful of references for this specific event that happened in June of 1991, the one from the LA Times best matching my memory of how my father described it.

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