Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Bowler blog.

Trend watch: I saw another man wearing a bowler hat today in downtown Chicago. About the fourth I’ve seen in a year or so; there must be something to this. Of course, bowlers could have come and gone among the Beau Brummels of the Upper East Side, and I would have missed it all together. But I know what I’ve seen in Chicago.

I’m tired of business casual, so I wouldn’t mind if we (men) all had to dress in the office like Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray in “The Apartment,” for a while anyway. As long as we wouldn’t be stuck with it for the next 20 years.

Yesterday’s blog evolved into the story of the 1977 San Antonio blackout, but I started off to describe stargazing. So I will pick up that thread. The thing about going out to see the stars in dark, dark conditions — an activity I recommend to anyone — is that you need more than dark skies for the experience to be worthwhile. A few years ago, we had visited Death Valley National Park, and were returning to Las Vegas after sunset on U.S. 95. Yuriko marveled at the dark sky and stars she could see from the passenger’s seat, but as the road went by, I couldn’t find a place to pull over safely to get out of the car and see myself. (Death Valley itself, though, strikes me as a fine place for stargazing; but I had a convention back in Vegas to attend).

So you not only need a pitch-black sky, you need someplace to relax and take your fill of stars. Or at least someplace to sit down, since relaxation may not be part of it. In March 1981, two friends and I were visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We started out from Durham in the morning and made it over the course of the day to Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Bros. flew, and Cape Hatteras, where the famed lighthouse was still in its original place. We caught a ferry to Ocrakoke Island, and planned to catch another one back to the mainland, but we missed the last ferry for the day.

So we were obliged to spend the night at a campground at a beach on Ocrakoke that was actually still closed for the season. No one else was there. It turned out to be a long night, because it got pretty cold. But, looking back, the fact we couldn’t get the camp stove working and so had little to eat, or that the sand was hard and lumpy, or that the temps hovered near freezing and the wind sometimes blew off the ocean and made it worse — all background detail. The night was clear and the March stars at about 35° North were as bright as I’d ever seen them.

Best of all, without the obstruction of mountains or trees, the whole sky was overhead. I didn’t have any kind of guide with me, but I had spent enough time with star books to recognize things I’d never seen in the hazy city skies. I saw, for instance, all of the stars of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), which you need non-urban viewing conditions to see. And there was the luminous Milky Way, inching across the sky.

In the summer of 1989, I found myself in rural Idaho for a week, and it was neither cold nor uncomfortable, and I had guides to consult. There were trees to avoid, but I did get a good look at certain parts of the sky, and traced a number of difficult constellations, such as Hercules and the entire Big Bear (Ursa Major).


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