My up-close and personal relationship with Saturn is brand new. Sure, I’d seen the pictures and the “artist’s conceptions” all my life. I’d read the stories, both science and fiction, and I believed. I believed in Saturn. I had faith.
I had faith that Saturn existed and that it had the rings that made it the single most miraculous object in the solar system, save Earth — which may also be, except for our belief and faith in numbers, the single most miraculous place in the universe.
But my belief in Saturn and its rings was just that, “belief.” After all, I had never actually seen Saturn — only pictures and paintings. Saturn to me was only hearsay. That all changed a month ago thanks a friend with a passion for astronomy and actual possession of a serious telescope, coupled with a moonless night at the edge of the pacific here in Laguna Beach.
With the events of the last year, I’ve often taken to mouthing a phrase picked up from someone else to give people a snapshot of my current take on our world in 2004. It goes, “I try to become more cynical every month but lately I just can’t keep up.” It’s so arch, so deftly faux-ironic yet yielding a bouquet redolent with a whiff of the flaneur and just a smidgen of edge. It’s a fine whine of recent vintage that’s just about as toxic to the truth about my inner life as a fresh, chilled pitcher of Jonestown Kool-Aid.
We often take up catch-phrases like the one above and use them as an Etch-A-Sketch display of our souls; our means to signify ourselves to others without really having to engage them. If we do it too much, who we are fades out of sight to others and we are like the sailor on the far horizon flapping out semaphore code about our inner self. Then we become distressed when others only see the code and not the man in full. But it is of our own doing and sometimes we get so far inside the code that we can’t step out of it, step closer into the light, stand and unfold ourselves. Sometimes, it takes something the size of a planet to knock us out of orbit and back down to the surface of the planet we inhabit.
I needed a planet, and for my sins, I got one.
My friend and I had had one of those solid guy meals composed of a good wine and a choice of pizza. Then we went outside on the terrace where a shrouded shape stretched up against the backdrop of ocean and night. His house is on the edge of the town overlooking the beach and the sea so it affords, except for the part of the sky taken up by the house, a fair chance of seeing what’s up there.
Light pollution is a problem I suppose since we are surrounded by a busy highway and a town whose other houses and street lights stretch up the hills around and behind, but the seeing is better than it would be in, say, my last home in Brooklyn Heights. Besides, it didn’t have a serious telescope pointed up at heaven. Telescopes are popular in New York, but they are seldom pointed up.
The evening haze had peeled off the sky and there was no moon. I looked out at the sea as he took the covering off the telescope and went through the rituals required to prepare the instrument. If this had been a decade or so ago, there would have been a long period of lining the telescope up, but this is the computer/GPS age and it was merely a matter of him entering some figures into a keypad and pressing “Enter.” The instrument hummed and swung across the sky through a small arc and stopped.
He bent over the eyepiece and moved the focus knob, then he stepped aside and let me take a look.
I pressed my eye against the mounting and saw…. well, I saw a pale, yellow smudge in the center a dark circle. Then I moved my thumb and forefinger just a bit and in an instant the smudge became a sharp, golden shape. And then, because it had rings, what the shape was became known to my mind — the planet Saturn. Real time. Real sky. Real life.
Saturn seen at last not as a picture taken by someone else and printed in a magazine or a book; an image passed on and fobbed off as the real deal. Not a drawing or a painting, a sketch or a story, but Saturn itself. And not Saturn with a ring around it, but Saturn with multiple rings that you could see with your own eye; Saturn streaked with colored bands of gas that wrapped across the surface of the planet. Saturn seen with the naked eyes. My eyes.
Saturn. Right there in the exact center of the sky.
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