Monday, November 3, 2014

A Noteworthy Corona-versary!

It was 20 years ago today―on November 3, 1994―that the Earth, moon and sun aligned themselves in such a way that the moon's conical shadow fell upon the surface of our planet.  Hundreds of "eclipse chasers" traveled thousands of miles to get a glimpse of one of nature's greatest celestial shows:  a total eclipse of the sun.  I was one of them;  on my first astronomical enrichment tour with MWT Associates, I helped lead a group of ten San Diego sky watchers, along with three dozen others from around the U.S., to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay to experience the drama of mid-day darkness.
After a week of enjoying the sights, sounds, aromas and flavors of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and after discussing every detail of eclipse mechanics, weather and photography, we were ready for the main event.  It was November 2, and we had settled in for the evening at a small hotel in Filadelfia, a tiny town southwest of AsunciĆ³n.  A wonderfully hearty early-evening dinner was followed by a few hours of Southern Hemisphere stargazing.  But it wasn't long before everyone had retired for the night, all in eager anticipation of what the morning would hold in store.
Our wakeup call on E-Day at 4:30 a.m. came in the form of a hotel employee banging on doors and yelling "Get up!" in Guarani, the primary native language of Paraguay.  "No need to shout," I thought.  Adrenaline had kept me awake most of the night anyway.  Racing to get dressed, I kept muttering to myself "I hope it's clear... I hope it's clear..."  After all, only one cloud strategically placed over the sun would end the show before it began.
As I opened the door and looked up into the blackness, my anxiety proved unfounded.  The sky was perfectly clear, and the Southern Cross shone exquisitely above the southeastern horizon.  "Yes!" I exclaimed, "It couldn't be better!"  Now the adrenaline was really pumping.
After a spirited breakfast, we piled into the bus for the trip south toward the eclipse centerline.  Despite getting very little sleep the night before, everyone was abuzz with discussion.  "Would exposures for the 'diamond ring' capture prominences as well?  How many stars would we see during totality?  How close to the centerline can we actually drive?"
By now, the sky to the east was beginning to show first light―right on time.  Despite having been through the chase before, I couldn't help rejoicing silently that the cosmos was behaving just as it should.  What a show we were going to have!


Within the hour, we arrived at the pre-planned observation site―a remote location of scrubby brush and tropical trees.  After hauling our gear 50 yards across the dirt road and over a 3-foot-high fence, we began setting up camp.  My equipment consisted of a platform for an 80mm-diameter, f/6 University Optics refractor telescope and three 35mm cameras, a German equatorial-mounted tripod connected to a 12-volt battery, and a short-wave radio and antenna for picking up accurate time signals from WWV.
At 8:27, it's show time and for us that means its payoff time.  Shouts of "first contact!" could be heard as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western limb of the sun.  Camera shutters clicked and eyes turned toward the sky.  The drama was on!
As the moon drifted eastward in front of our star, excited chatter came from everywhere.  Some in our group simply lay on the ground enjoying the sights;  others were diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to record every second of the action.  I, of course, was one of the latter.
By 9:30, the sunlight had dimmed significantly and only a delicate crescent star remained. Shadows on the ground had become noticeably sharper, and sunlight streaming through the leaves of trees projected myriad tiny eclipses onto the ground below.  The mid-morning dusk brought to the sizzling Gran Chaco some much-welcomed cool air.  Flowers began to close in the waning light;  birds returned to roost;  nocturnal animals became more active.

Now, with only seconds until totality, the moon's dark shadow descended ominously from the western sky, engulfing the Paraguayan landscape in a still and eerie darkness. Shutters clicked madly at the rapidly changing scene, and heartbeats began to race. Soon, the last burst of sunlight shone through the rugged valleys along the moon's edge: the "diamond ring." And then... totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its arrival;  some wept at its splendor.  And some gazed in silent awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.  What a magnificent and exhilarating moment―one that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.



In the darkened sky, the glistening planets Venus and Jupiter shone like jewels barely a dozen degrees from the pearly-white corona, and glowing near the horizon were the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.  If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it.  Its beauty held even the most veteran of eclipse chasers hostage, and we all became swept up by the haunting celestial theater.
Three and a quarter minutes passed, yet it seemed like only seconds, until the sun's familiar rays burst into view again. "No!  It can't be over yet!  It just began!" But Mother Nature had her own plans, and there was nothing we could do about them. All we could do was excitedly relive the past three minutes, and begin to plan where we would be for the next total solar eclipse nearly a full year, and an entire world, away.
Three years of calculating, planning and rehearsing were now complete.  The 1994 Gran Chaco total solar eclipse was history, etched forever in the minds of those who watched.  For a few magical moments, we had become one with the Cosmos―in perfect syzygy with the three most important bodies in our solar system. We had been touched by the power of our universe in a way impossible to describe, and felt emotions impossible to communicate.

For, you see, there are two types of people in this world:  those who have experienced totality, and those who have not.  And those of us who have will never, ever, be the same again.  


Join me for future eclipses, northern lights and other exciting celestial phenomena... check out our upcoming astronomical tours, and have the time of your life!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Expect the Unexpected

It’s Father’s Day and, like so many others are doing today, my thoughts go back to my dad and all he did to make me who I am through his life examples and wisdom.  

But last night—and nearly 31 years after his death, my dad saved my life. 

On my way home from a presentation some 80 miles away, I decided to take a different route—a two-lane road through the desert that I was sure would cut my driving time by 15 or 20 minutes.  And it did… but it also taught me something special about my dad—and myself.

You see, when I was learning to drive some 46 years ago—in fact, even long before that—my  dad would say to me:  “Always expect the unexpected.”  He explained how, while driving, he was constantly watching all the other drivers to anticipate their actions, and how he was always thinking about how he would react if another car did this or that.  And, in all the years I rode with him, he always got me home safely.

Expect the unexpected.   

Apparently I learned the lesson well, because this is something I’ve done my entire life behind the wheel of a car… one of the reasons, I suspect, that I have such a tough time carrying on a conversation while driving.  But last night this lesson paid off big time.

As I headed home along this dark two-lane desert road, car headlights were occasionally coming toward me from the opposite direction and, as I always do, I keep watch on the distant center line as my way of making sure they’re in their proper lane.  At the same time I’m constantly keeping an eye on both lanes and the shoulders of the road as possible escape routes in case of emergency.

It was about midway through my drive last night that I saw headlights coming in my direction about half a mile ahead, but they weren’t where I thought they should be. Did they appear this way because the car was coming around a curve?  Quite possibly, but something just didn’t look right.

It wasn’t until these headlights were about 150 feet in front of me that I could see why.  This car was barreling straight toward me in my lane! 

Expect the unexpected.

Because I had been doing just that, I was able to react quickly. One option I knew I had was swerve to the left (into the empty oncoming lane) but, if I did that and he realized his mistake, he might cross back over.  The other was that I could drive off the road onto the flat, sandy shoulder on the right and hope he wasn’t so bent on suicide that he'd follow me there.  I instinctively chose the shoulder and within a split second
thankfullyhe raced past me, completely oblivious to the fact that he was in the wrong lane and had nearly killed us both.

After a few choice words for the other driver (words, by the way, that were mild compared to what my dad might have expressed!), I continued on my journey.  But once I got home safely, I realized something very important.

Though our loved ones may be gone from this physical realm they are never truly gone; they do, indeed, live on within those of us who remain. And last night was a perfect example of this; it was the part of me that is my father that saved my life because if I had not learned his lesson to “expect the unexpected,” I might not be here today to write these words.

For that—and for so much more—thank you, Dad.  I owe you my life.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Thoughts from a One-Year Cancer Survivor

It was one year ago today, May 2, that I underwent surgery to remove the scourge of prostate cancer. I owe my life to my long-time primary care physician for catching it early, and the excellent surgical team at San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital for removing the cancer in its entirety.

Since then, my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels have dropped to zero, and my health is great. And, while I am checking PSA levels on a regular basis—one can never be certain that the scourge won’t metastasize elsewhere in the body—I feel confident that the whole episode is behind me. And I now share the honor of being a prostate cancer survivor with such luminaries as actor Robert De Niro, “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani, former Yankee manager Joe Torre, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and many others whose names we don’t know.

Over the past year, many of my family, friends and fans have asked how I’m doing since the scare and, while I’m truly grateful for their concern, I never considered it a “scare.” In fact, I was never once frightened or worried by it, nor did I ever lament “why me?”

Now maybe I’m just too dopey to know any better, but I approached the whole thing with my best Alfred E. Neuman impersonation: “What, me worry?” You see, I watched as my mom and dad worried over everything, resulting only in anger, stress, nail biting and hair pulling. I can’t imagine how many years this must have taken off their lives.

Of course I, too, went through this agony when I was younger—after all, it had been programmed into me—but where did it get me? Right back with the same problem, only now angry, stressed, with bloodied nails and a balding head.

No, I’ve learned long ago that worry and fear are counterproductive. If one has no control over the situation, then worry and fear will do no good. And if one does have control, then take control damn it!

It’s not a coincidence that one of my favorite quotations comes from the dramatic true-story motion picture “Apollo 13.” No, it’s not the quotation most think of… but this, too, comes from NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz who, in a remarkably tense scene, scolds his engineering team for all the cockamamie ideas and WAGs (wild-ass guesses) they were desperately throwing out in an attempt to rescue three astronauts stranded on their way to the moon.

It is simply this: “Don’t make things worse by guessing! Work the problem people!”

And that’s just the way I’ve learned to approach life, and issues like this one. Work the problem. And by keeping one’s focus on a solution, one has no time for guessing or worry or fear, and life continues to be hopeful, happy and productive.

After my surgery I barely skipped a beat. I continued presenting astronomical programs, writing and photography from under the beautiful heavens of California’s only International Dark Sky Community and around the world. I did, however, give myself the luxury of six months to recover physically, and then returned to the gym with a vengeance. And I’m still regularly enjoying cardio and pumping iron as much as ever… and feeling great. No slowing down for this Paisano. I figure if the Grim Reaper wants me he’ll have to catch me from behind!

My point here is simply this: we all face problems in our lives; some greater than others. Mine are no more or less special than any one else’s. What matters, however, is one’s attitude and approach to them. Life is just a temporary condition, after all, so don’t sweat it.

And most importantly… work the problem!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Goodbye Alaska... for now!

Well, my friends, my 2014 Alaska aurora adventure is nearing an end.  I'm sitting in the hotel and will be heading to San Diego tomorrow afternoon, and on to my desert home on Monday. Seems like ages ago that I stood under the dome of Juneau’s Marie Drake Planetarium speaking to several groups of wide-eyed stargazers and night sky photographers… but all good things must end, and so must my journey. But I’ll be back, as I have every year for the past 15, because there’s something about Alaska that draws me.

How big is Alaska?  Very big!
If you asked me to describe Alaska in just one word, that word would be "majestic." No question about it.  Majestic.  Whether it’s the towering, rugged snow-covered mountains or the delicate wisps of the northern lights, whether it’s the thunderous crash of glaciers calving before our eyes or the silent glide of bald eagles in search of prey… this is one majestic state. More volcanoes and earthquakes here than the rest of the U.S. combined; it’s so huge that one could cut it in half and Texas would go from the second largest to the third largest state!

Northern lights over Fairbanks
But perhaps the most wonderful part of Alaska is its people. Regular folks. No pretension here.  I doubt there’s a tuxedo or evening gown in the state. Regular, good-hearted folks who are friendly, generous, strong, resilient and, yes—when they enjoy outdoor activities at -40F—perhaps a little nuts. But they’re my kind of people, and I’m proud to call them my friends. And, while I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and now live in California, I am, in my heart of hearts, an Alaskan!

Thank you all for your kind hospitality and friendship; as always, I’m counting the days until I return next February. And to all my Facebook friends and fans around the world… thank you, too, for joining me along the way. I hope that, through my photos and words, I’ve been able to share with you my amazing adventure, and that you one day will discover the same excitement and wonder—the same majesty—that is Alaska.

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue...