Stars in Reach

Pegasys constellation. In the sky.

My astronomy TA was a really nerdy guy. At least to a few of us political science/history type undergrads taking a summer class to fulfill distribution requirements. One short class looking at the stars, and we had three natural science credits including lab toward that bachelors’ of the arts degree.

I’m sure the TA had one of those classically 60’s name like Steve or Dave or Mike. He would never go by Steven or David or Michael, and certainly not Caleb or Liam.

Steve?Dave?Mike? had oversized heavy aviator glasses that barely held his thick lenses in place and not-on-purpose disheveled hair. The most remarkable thing about him–and remark about this we frequently did–was the embroidery on the back pocket of his jeans.

They were constellations.

We found that amusing in that snarky, look at the nerd way.

We had class in the morning twice each week. Sometimes class would be in the planetarium so we could study the location of the stars in the sky. We learned by looking at the ceiling filled with an image of the sky filled with stars.

Steve?Dave?Mike? would point to different groups of stars and in the dark as we leaned back to look at the “sky” he told us stories. Stories about Pegasus, the great winged horse (see the big box there?), and about Cepheus (that house over there), and his wife Cassiopeia (the “W” on the other side of the sky) trying to protect the maiden, Andromeda (less distinctive, but you can see that line on the horizon).

Sweet Steve?Dave?Mike? was an astrophysicist kindly sharing his love for our universe with us not worthy of what he knew. He’d take us out on the roof at 9:30 pm (the sun sets late during a Michigan June). He’d set up the telescopes so we could see the moons of Jupiter. It was remarkable and humbling.
I fell in love with the sky.

I still look at the stars to pick out the belt of Orion. I squint to see the stars of Draco between the Little Dipper and it’s Big Dipper sibling. I follow the permutations of the moon and text my family when it is especially noteworthy.

I remember the time I first saw the Milky Way on a moonless night far away from the light pollution of the city. And shooting stars. And sometimes when my family is away from me, I’ll look to the sky and take comfort that they can see the same stars.

We found out that his wife held the needle and thread and stitched the stars on his jeans. This was shocking to us twenty-year olds because the only people we knew who were married were our parents. He had a wife, someone who loved him. And we loved him a little bit, too.

All Comes Down

Dog reviewing the lit up Christmas tree.

I’m doing it this weekend.

Unlike in many, many, many years in the past, when it would stand until the branches bowed convex and were favoring the brown side of green and when the needles had become little weapons stabbing you to protect their ornaments until they sacrificed themselves to carpet the carpet with their barbed edges awaiting an unsuspecting stockinged foot. So sneaky. But not this year.

Yet, this year’s tree was not without its own dramas. It begins with a process.

First, I placate my conscience by making sure that the proceeds for a pricey fire-hazard farmed for my holiday pleasure goes to a “good cause.”

Then there’s the search for the right tree. It has to be a very tall tree that isn’t too wide (old house with small rooms and high ceilings). I really like the impact of a TALL tree. It’s so impressive.

I don’t like the really long needles, so there’s that. And I can’t ever remember the type tree that we usually get. White pine? Douglas Fir? Fraser? Colorado Blue Spruce? Some people know. I don’t. But I know what it should smell like. And the smell is key. I usually grab a branch and run my hands along it to feel the needles and, if it feels good, I sink my nose into its cold body and take a big whiff, because when you get your tree it needs be cold and smell like cold and sweet pungent pine.

So it looks and smells right, but, and this is critical and based on prior trauma, will it stand upright for the duration? This is when we hold it and spin it and study the trunk, because depending on the cut and any squirrely bend in the tree, you can find yourself rehanging ornaments all season. Or, as in one year, someone might just pick it up off of the ground and javelin it across the room accompanied by a volley of sharp words not appropriate for you, Loyal Reader.

After much scrutiny, unwrapping and review of trees in the secret stash and a highly supervised and exacting chainsawing of the bottom branches, we brought the tree home. (Also after a most excellent and celebratory hot toddy and bar snacks.)

Guess what? The damn tree was unstable in the tree stand.

Yup. So there was much additional doctoring of the branches, backs and forths with hacksaws, crosscut saws, heavy duty pruners, and likely a switch blade. It stood, but if a heavy truck drove down our street, it would surely drop.

It was time for the big gun. But that was not without some regret as the Big Gun’s solution included screwing the tree stand into a block of wood that ended up breaking in half and then taking a pair of these bad boys

and posting them on top of that plank for additionally stability. This is where the size of the tree is important since you can almost–almost I say–cover them with a tree skirt and still have room for presents underneath in the front.

The next day I climbed the rickety ladder–I mean why buy a new ladder when you can continue to use the one that your Spouse found in the shed at the group house he lived in 30 years ago?–to place the star on the top of the tree.

Heavy star tree topperI got the star about four or five years ago. Decent tree toppers are almost impossible to find and this star has faceted mirrors to reflect the lights on the tree. I was ecstatic that it didn’t light up with some garish LED lights that looked more like a downtown Cincinnati bar sign (drink bush lite here). It would light from the tree itself. But when you buy something online, you might find yourself focusing on how it looks, because, well that’s what you see online, a beautiful star on a beautiful Pottery Barn tree in an amazingly beautiful curated holiday scene. You don’t recognize, for instance, that the star weighs 75 pounds and there is no discernable way to attach it to the tree.

So you get on the rickety ladder and braid together some old bread ties so they are long enough to wrap around the top of the tree and the tree topper (you don’t do the braiding until you are on the top of the ladder because, I don’t know, you like to swing back and forth with a 75 pound fragile star in your hand at the top of a rickety ladder while crocheting wire ties together?!). And you do this same thing every year because, I don’t know, Christmas?

Anyway, you get on the top of the rickety ladder with your ties and your star and start the process of braiding and then affixing it to the top of the tree. Lot’s of twists of lots of ties.

And then, and then, and then—you notice that the tree is starting to list to starboard. It seems strange since there are 100 pounds of weights holding it down, but it pitches anyway, and there is no time for additional analysis. It’s time for action. From the top of the rickety ladder you un-secure the twist ties that you really really twisted while trying to hold the tree upright and trying to keep yourself from losing balance and tumbling off the ladder onto the tree.

You know just what is needed. The tree needs to be tied to the wall. And you need a Bulleit.

And, today, it’s coming down.