Who am I? What am I doing here?

Who am I? What am I doing here?

Those are taken as the questions of a confused, old man because they were most famously asked by Admiral James Stockdale in 1992 at the start of a Vice Presidential debate. Stockdale got a bum rap for that one, perhaps because his delivery was poor, perhaps because people are cruel and stupid – perhaps because of things he said that followed. I’m not sure. People made lots of fun of him for it. But the questions are excellent. Hell, I wish a whole lot of politicians would ask themselves those questions. I especially wish George Bush had asked them back in 2000. Come to think of it, it would be helpful if he’d ask them right now.

But I don’t mean to get diverted by politics. What I mean is these are a damned good pair of questions and I find myself asking them of myself frequently – especially at 4 am, when I stare out into the Universe and start naming the stars. Sometimes I get an answer.

Yeah, yeah . . . I hear you – all you normal folks who are leading “normal” lives. Sorry, but if you’re giggling right now and thinking I’m a crazy old man to be out in an unheated observatory at 4 am with the thermometer kissing 23-degrees and the wind rattling the doors, then we’re even because I think you may be sleepwalking through life. No offense intended, but the cold air, the darkness, and the solitude can all do wonders in terms of waking one up. See I don’t have the answers, but I at least ask the questions.

I was asking them again this morning, though I first was distracted by a little housekeeping. See Celestron committed some really lousy engineering when they attached the computer hand controller to the Nexstar SE-8. It just uses one of those standard telephone cord plugs we’re all familiar with, but on this model – not the 5-icnh I used to have – they positioned it in such a way it’s next to impossible to plug in unless you have elf fingers. It’s something you definitely don’t want to do at 4 am in the dark and cold – and I gave up before I lost something important, like my temper. No – this once more was a simple lesson to me – KISS again – Keep It Simple Stupid. So I spent 20 minutes fooling with bolts and hand-made pedestal extensions, and in the end I had replaced the computerized Celestron mount with a simpler, elegantAstro-Tech “Voyager.” Simpler means no motors, no computer.

That meant I was on my own to find my way around the universe – no computer with which to locate a pair of distant star clusters invisible to the naked eye – and no motors to counteract the motion of our spaceship which was, of course, spinning and taking me away from whatever target I did find. But the manual controls on this mount are nice and yes, I do know my way around the night sky, especially when it comes to finding old familiar friends such as M35 and its faint, far more distant companion, NGC 2158.

M35 is in the foot of one of the celestial twins, roughly 3,000 light years from us – reset your watch to 1000 BCE when you look at it – and it’s a beautiful, relatively young, star cluster. It’s companion, NGC 2158, is believed to be mor than 10 times as old and is about five times more distant – roughly 15,000 years which means the light I was catching from it had started it’s journey about the same time folks were using that land bridge across the Bearing Sea – I guess we should call it “the bridge to somewhere” – and crossing into North America via Alaska. (Hey – I can see Alaska from Russia! Wait a minute dummy – there is no Alaska, there is no Russia – it’s 10,000 BCE! Oh that’s better!) 😉

But seriously – these are the sorts of things that help me answer those two questions – who am I and what am I doing here. Or maybe not. Do I have any connection to those people who walked here 12,000 years ago? I think the answer is in my DNA and I remember reading that there’s a way to check it now. But does it matter? NGC 2158 is barely visible in my small scope. It jumps out at me, but only because I’ve seen it many times before and I’m used to catching its dim, yellowish gleam with averted vision. If I look right at it, it vanishes. Same with those distant ancestors. If i don’t try too hard to see them, they’re sitting here with me. I’m the one who stirred and put a few more sticks on the fire, before pulling the mammoth quilt back over me. Damn, I miss my battery-powered heatedvest! And what did the stars mean to me then? Without an Internet, without the memories of Oklahoma shocking Texas Tech the night before – 42-7 at the end of the first half when I turned it off – without the false teeth, the handful of daily pills, the clothes, the house, the car – so darned much brain-clutter 0 did they do more star-dreaming then? Did they see better? Or were theys leepwalkers as well? Did they have answers – or even ask the questions?

I mean for me to even get the hint of an answer I have to sit quietly on the observing stool, focusing on my long, slow breaths, and letting my monkey mind settle down. But these are some of the things I see in the sky at 4 am. You may wonder why I come back to the same familiar objects over and over and it’s because they’re so fascinating – everything is so fascinating. If you’re jaded – if you’re bored – if you don’t find them that way – that’s your problem, not theirs. Hey, I still don’t understand a candle flame, let alone a star, not to mention a pair of star clusters – hundreds of nuclear campfires – a whole city of them.

But who am I? Part of the answer comes into sharper focus as I reach for the two large knobs on the mount that control the motion of the small telescope. They let me smoothly compensate for the movement of my spaceship. Yes, we’ve made “Spaceship Earth” a cliche. Damn, we sure wear out good things fast! It’s not a cliche. It’s real. We’re the unreal ones. We think we’rs living on this planet. No we’re not. We’re living in it. We’re in it and we have this huge, transparent observing port above us made of a mixture of life-sustaining gases. Strange – these gases are held in place by a forcefield we think we understand because we’ve given it a name – gravity. We don’t understand it at all.But it works just fine.

I do appreciate it. I do see that it has somethng to do with defining me. I am one of the 6 billion or so sentient beings in this spaceship and we are spinning on our axis and hurtling about the Sun which is hurtling about our galaxy and I’m blissfully unaware of most of those motions and yet here and now that one motion – the spinning of the Earth – is clear, second by second, as M35 and NGC2158 slowly slip out of the field of view.

Who am I? A passenger on Spaceship Earth. What am I doing here? Becoming aware.

There. A pair of answers for a pair of questions.Hardly definitive. Just my answers for this morning.