Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Stargazer

It's 28 degrees and my husband is outside, looking up at the stars.

For me, it's a tough sell. Inside, I have warm pajamas, two pairs of socks and a comforter pulled over my legs. There's a beagle sleeping upside down next to me, caught in a dream-chase. My laptop hums vaguely on my lap.

Every so often, Will comes to the back door and calls, "You can see the Red Spot on Jupiter!" and I sigh, and snuggle deeper beneath the comforter.


The telescope arrived in no less than four boxes in separate, highly-anticipated UPS deliveries. It's a serious piece of equipment, and I laugh when I see the finished product. I had tried to buy him off with a child's version of a telescope, something handheld and probably better suited to spotting land from a ship already very near the shore. Once assembled, this telescope occupies a rather large section of our garage -- a space where other, less adventurous people might park a car.


It's not that I'm against Will having a hobby. I've got a rather time-consuming one myself (Exhibit A: 3,000 books), and I can appreciate the romance and escapism of astronomy, although not necessarily the patience and the act of trying not to squint into an eyepiece.

My objection is more practical: It's January, the temperature hovering at or below freezing, and frankly, I'd just rather be inside. Somehow when the word "telescope" first came up, I envisioned us lying on a blanket, sipping wine, telling stories and admiring the sky.

I had discounted winter entirely.

But even I can understand that the planet he sees tonight might not be there in the middle of a balmy June evening.


When he finally persuades me to come outside, the telescope is pointed directly at the moon. The moon looks, in case you're wondering, exactly like you think it would look: Swiss-cheesy, with a giant depression for the Sea of Tranquility. When your teeth are chattering from the cold, it's hard to keep the entire moon in focus -- it seems to be wobbling up and down, although, of course, it's actually the viewer who is wobbling up and down.


I come from a short line of astronomy buffs, including only my mother.

Years ago she took a class on astronomy and ever since has spent two weeks of each spring crawling through a tunnel into an inflatable dome, then lying on her back with a laser-pointer, telling stories of Orion and Andromeda to giggling groups of schoolchildren.

I come to her StarLab lesson every few years, and it's always amazing what I've forgotten in the times between. I am only capable of holding the map of the sky in my mind for minutes at a time. Close my eyes or look away, and I've forgotten it all. Maybe I just don't look up enough, or pause often enough to be amazed. But each time I do, I see the scattered sprinkling of lights, and it's all new once again.


One of the first gifts I bought Will, for a birthday long ago, was a moon globe. Now he has moon maps, sky charts, a stargazing app, and a binder full of observations. He stargazes with a combination of extreme seriousness and a toddler's unbridled joy. Sometimes I ask if he is looking for anything in particular, because I have a deep suspicion that he is looking not just for a planet, but for someone or something.

From the millions of interesting Will stories I have at my disposal, I offer the following:

On May 2, 2011, we were relaxing in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon when our programing was interrupted by the announcement of a special presidential press conference. We sat up straight; I was convinced we would hear news of a national tragedy or a natural disaster, but Will thought otherwise. He became edgy and pale, growing more and more flustered as we waited.

"What is it?" I demanded.

He began to pace the room, muttering under his breath as he went. It sounded like he was saying, "It's finally happened."

"Um, hello? What are you talking about?"

His eyes glistened, in a way that seemed almost... other-worldly, and he said, "I've been waiting for this! We've made contact."


You've probably figured out -- or remembered, or remembered after following the link -- that May 2, 2011 was the date that Osama Bin Laden was killed. President Obama revealed as much at the press conference that evening, and for days -- weeks, maybe -- media everywhere was consumed with the story. Everything from euphoria to concern to outrage was voiced, but in our little house, we were more subdued.

I didn't have the heart to say, "I told you so."

And Will was too despondent to do anything other than wander out into the backyard, and stare up at the sky.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The City at Night

We wake from a late-afternoon nap, dress, and step outside. San Francisco is hushed, a quiet brought on by the deepening evening, the susurration of cars passing in the rain. And it is raining – alternating between a gray mist and insistent droplets. We pull our coats tighter, thinking fondly of the umbrella packed in case of such an unlikely occurrence, an umbrella safely stowed in our car, which is safely stowed in a parking garage six blocks away.
We laugh. It’s not so bad. Every third of a block or so we stop beneath a store awning, catching our breath, peering inside at the people peering outside at us.
Two blocks later we hail a cab, slide giggling into the back seat, patting rain off our heads. We give the driver the address of our eventual destination: 261 Columbus Avenue. It's raining harder when we emerge, and we take cover beneath an overhang, catching our bearings.
First, dinner. We head up one block, where North Beach begins its merge to Chinatown. There are wet figures on every corner, waiting for streetlights. Pizza-by-the-slice, topless shows, gelato. We pass a half-dozen Chinese restaurants and reverse direction. It's raining harder, now. At any minute what seems a romantic, half-waking dream will become the stuff of bad memories. What about that time you dragged me through half of San Francisco in that downpour?
The restaurant we are looking for seems not to exist, and no amount of reasoning with our Maps app produces results. Half a block in another direction, toward Russian Hill, we see a miniscule awning and make a run for it. It's either this or pizza-by-the-slice. It's either this or starvation.
The restaurant has fewer than twenty two-seater tables, and appears to be at capacity. But no, miraculously -- there is a table near the kitchen, and yes, we will take it. We shrug out of our coats, place a wine order, listen to the specials. "My mamma handmade that pasta this morning," the waitress tells us. Beginning to dry off, we look around, noting the family resemblance in the servers. There is the matriarch, slightly stooped, a black skirt past her knees, orthopedic shoes. The two daughters, in black pants. A pre-teen girl, obviously a granddaughter, bringing checks to tables.
The arrival of the patriarch coincides with the arrival of a crusty bread, to be dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. "This is just what this place needed," my companion says. "A mafia don." And he does seem severe at first, in dark pants and overcoat, rainwater dripping off his fedora. Then the matriarch steps forward, using her thumbs to pat his face dry.
I realize that the table by the kitchen is the best seat in this house.
It would be too simple, too anti-climactic to say, And then the food arrived, and then we ate. Yet it would seem hyperbolic to say, And then the single best plate of food I have ever eaten was served to me.

There have been other good meals, some even fantastic. This one nearly made me cry with happiness, like a batty old lady in a children's book. To put a bite of this food (gnocchi pillows stuffed with ricotta and spinach, topped with a tomato and gorgonzola cream sauce) into my mouth was to realize that I had never really eaten before, and would probably never do so again. It was the most intense food experience of my life. My companion -- he of the flat-noodle pasta, tossed with Italian sausage, peppers and a tomato sauce -- fed me off his fork, and I returned the favor. We were full long before our plates were finished, but there was no choice but to press on, despite an uncomfortable fullness. It was simply a moral imperative.
The granddaughter brought our check, we drained the last of our wine, the owner thanked us, and we left, food-drunk and happy.

It was still raining, and the streetlights cast a faux glow over us. We linked hands; we made a run for it.