There Are Billions of Stars

I know because I look at them.

Last night, after a busy day that included 2 hours of physical therapy for my shoulder and six hours in the office polishing off two chapters of my upcoming QuickBooks book revision, I came home and spent some quality time on the back patio, just hanging out.

Lately, when I get home, I retire to the room we call the Library. It’s second guest room, the one with the futon and the desk and a whole bunch of books. I sit at the desk and type what I like to think are words of wisdom into my PowerBook. Sometimes it’s the novel I’m working on. Other times, its a blog. Still other times, it’s e-mail to friends. And once in a while, when I have question, I’ll surf to find the answer online.

But last night I decided to celebrate my first full day without painkillers. You see, I did something to my shoulder/neck last week and things came to a head on Sunday. I was in so much pain, I went to the hospital emergency room. The doctor there told me I had a pinched nerve and gave me a few prescriptions. The prescriptions helped me sleep, which did more to make me feel better than anything else.

Of course, when you’re on painkillers, you can’t drink. Not if you want to keep your brain matter in decent condition. I’m not a big drinker, but I do enjoy a glass of red wine in the evening, with dinner.

Last night I opened a fresh bottle and had my first glass of wine in nearly a week. Ah. And what better place to sip it than on the back patio, watching the sun set?

And while I was at it, why not hook up my new iPod to the stereo speakers Mike put out there? And play some nice native American flute music? Some R. Carlos Nakai, perhaps?

So that’s what I did. Instead of cooping myself up in the library and not even noticing the day’s end and the evening’s start, I went outside to experience it firsthand, with a peaceful soundtrack of flutes and chanting and, later, crickets.

The sunset was not terribly impressive. It usually isn’t when there aren’t any clouds to illuminate from below. But the sky went through its usual ritual of changing colors. Venus was bright, high in the sky — the first star of the night. Then, as the light faded away, the stars came out, one by one. More stars than a city slicker could imagine. And beyond them, the glow of the Milky Way.

We see the Milky Way almost every night here. It isn’t a big deal. But I remember living in the suburbs near New York City. With all that ambient light, it was tough to see the stars at all. But here, out beyond the lighted streets, beyond the end of the pavement, tucked behind a hill that blocks the glow of Phoenix, we can see every star of the Milky Way. It’s a glowing band, a flowing path of densely packed stars.

We used to pull out our telescope once in a while and look into the Milky Way’s depths. If you’ve never seen it for yourself, you just can’t imagine. The entire lens filled with more stars than you can comprehend.

I watched a handful of airplanes, off in the distance, flashing their lights as they sped through the night sky. I remembered the night of September 11, 2001, when there weren’t any planes in the sky. We’d sat outside together that night, Mike and I, still shell-shocked by the events of the day. But it was the absence of airplanes at night that really put things into perspective for us. We — the American people — were afraid to let the planes fly.

I thought for a while last night about the people in homes around us. It was after 7 PM and many people had probably finished dinner. What were they doing? Watching the stars? Or watching their televisions? Did they know what they were missing?

I remembered when I was a kid, growing up in northern New Jersey. I remember summer nights at my grandparent’s house. I remember stretching out on their thick lawn watching the sky, trying not to think of the night-crawlers wriggling around in the moist earth beneath me. There were street lights, but I remember seeing the Milky Way. I remember my grandfather pointing it out. I remember him explaining that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. And knowing, even when I was very young, which direction was east and which was west.

Do kids sit out at night with their parents or grandparents just looking at the night sky? Do they get their first astronomy lesson at home? Do they even know that the Milky Way is something other than a candy bar?

Things are different now. But I’m not convinced that they’re better. People seem more concerned with what they see on television and what goes on in the lives of the rich and famous than their own lives and families. Mike sees this firsthand. He goes to work and he hears his coworkers talking about the shows that were on television the night before. They try to get Mike involved in the conversation, but he has no clue what they’re talking about and wouldn’t care if he did. We haven’t tuned into a prime-time network television show since Seinfeld went off the air. We don’t need television escapes to keep our lives interesting.

Are you reading this? Scoffing at me because of my nose-up attitude toward television and television-based values? That’s okay. I forgive you. You probably don’t know any better.

But do this one day. Go outside in the early evening with your significant other and kids or dog. Find a dark and quiet spot. Settle down on the grass or a lawn chair. And just listen. Listen to the animals, the sound of the wind, the birds, the traffic in the distance. And look at the sky as it changes from evening to night. Look at the stars. Find the airplanes. If it’s dark enough, you’ll see some satellites, too. If you’ve got the kids along, tell them about the stars. Tell them the stories that you remember from your childhood. Or make something up, something special and meaningful. Ask them questions, make them tell you what they think about things. Make them think.

An evening away from the television can be magic if you let it.

At about 7:30 last night, Mike’s car turned the corner to come down the hill toward our house. But I wasn’t watching it. I was watching a shooting star as it sped past Venus and faded into the night.

What do you think?