by Zara Miller-Rosenberg
There is no doubt that safety is an issue for urban astronomers, though; particularly those who choose to observe from public-accessible sites where the very things that make the location attractive — fewer streetlights and the presence of wooded areas to block stray illumination — may cause genuine safety concerns…” – The Urban Astronomer’s Guide
Where I grew up the light pollution was inescapable; the stars traded for a skyline. You can see Ellis Island, Manhattan and Queens from my roof. You can see the Chrysler building, the clock tower, and the Statue of Liberty- a green monopoly piece in the distance. You can see onto all of the other roofs in my neighborhood, other people hanging out or smoking. Plenty to see, but few stars. My mother explained the constellations to me when I was younger, and tried to show me how to find them. She told me about Orion and Orion’s belt, but all I could remember was that it was three stars that connected. Anytime there were a few stars out, I looked for any three stars I could connect and thought I had found Orion’s belt.
The first time I saw stars – really saw stars, so many that the sky looked like a dark sheet with millions of little pin pricks in it held against a bright light – was the first time I visited a school most of my friends from high school went to. Later I would end up visiting many times, staying with my friend Taylor in a little blue house with a yard three times the size. New Paltz is a liberal college town in upstate New York with a view of the mountains and no light pollution. On a Friday afternoon, there are murmurs in the library about who’s going where that night, and who’s throwing what party. Unaware of the reality and dangers that existed, on our first visit we embraced a sense of freedom we had not known yet.
I stared up at the stars and marveled. I staggered backwards, and leaned on my friend Lily. We were enjoying the view from the parking lot of a synagogue while we chugged our Four Lokos and Cayla peed in the corner.
The night was fuzzy: the volleyball house, the colleges we lied about going to, the boy we went to high school with who was cute, but drank too much (“half a bacaaaaaaardi” he stretched out the word, extending the vowel sounds). He followed us around for the night and commented his phone number on our Instagram posts. We tromped through sweaty Halloween parties that were a week too early and a beer soaked sports house where 19-year-old guys interrogated us on where we went to school (lies) how old we were (lies) and our favorite sex positions (no comment).
The floor of the volleyball house was covered in a thin layer of beer from the beer pong game underway, and the keg next to the bathroom sloppily filled plastic cups sold for five dollars each. Some people leaned against the kitchen counter or wall, others piled up on the couch. We sipped our beers, thin and watery, and talked to the older boys about the colleges we lied about going to. They didn’t know how old we were, or how predatory their behaviors really were considering Sam, Cayla, and I were 15, 16, and 17 respectively. The coolest kinds of spies, we were underage. Under drinking age, under college age, under the age of consent. We took in everything around us and tried to behave appropriately for our surroundings. We didn’t want to stand out, but we wanted to be noticed. We wanted someone to see how cool we looked.
“So do you guys go to New Paltz?” Plastic cup with foamy yellow beer sloshing toward us as he gestured with his drink. One boy who seemed to be the leader of his posse of three, sauntered up to us with the type of confidence you can only find in mediocre white male college athletes. They were all so average looking, their features almost blended together. Their outfits were all variations on the same theme. Polos, pale blue, green, and pink, paired with fashionably skinny jeans and new Nikes or Vans. So this is what cool looked like.
“No we’re just visiting our friend.” Sam, the youngest, was also the most outgoing; she managed to perk up when she met new people while still maintaining the sense of apathy that keeps you looking cool and unattached. She pointed over to Lily, who had migrated to a more secluded corner to fight with her boyfriend.
“Oh word? Are you guys friends from high school?”
“Yea, we graduated together, but all went to different schools.” I explained. This was the part that didn’t make any sense to me. Would three girls from different schools in various areas of the East Coast all really come visit their friend at school for a weekend? How did we all get here? None of us had cars, or knew how to drive, we grew up in New York City where cars were a hassle, not a necessity. Didn’t they know that just by looking at us? Why couldn’t we all just say we went to Purchase and make it more believable? Sam mentioned that people at New Paltz might know people at Purchase; they were only 30 minutes away from each other by car. And Cayla wanted to tell people she was studying speech therapy at Binghamton, and Sam wanted to look smart and fun, so she said she went to Lehigh, and I wanted to look cool and say I went to Hampshire, and took women’s studies classes at Smith.
“Where do you all go?”
“I go to Hampshire.”
“Lee High School? Are you in high school?”
My eyes widened. They had found us out. Sam, cool and sassy as ever responded, “Umm no… Lehigh University? It’s in Pennsylvania.” She furrowed her brow and pursed her lips and looked at them through the side of her eye, her feigned superiority was enough to convince them.
“Oh right, cool. I thought you guys were lying or something.” We all laughed. This misunderstanding was funny. We were old enough for this conversation, of course, and the notion that we might not be was amusing.
We played beer pong with our new-found friends; Cayla watched the Yankee game, screaming at the TV when Derek Jeter hit a homerun. A shy girl at first glance, she was passionate about the things she loved, food, her two dogs, and baseball. She yelled even louder when Derek Jeter broke his left ankle. Holding a Rolling Rock in her right hand, she threw her arms up almost spilling the beer when he crumpled to the ground. It was the twelfth inning of the Detroit Tigers versus the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, and she was glued to the TV once she realized the game was on. She watched with a crowd of athletes, all of them jumping up and gesturing toward the TV screen in unison.
When the party ended we walked away from the small one-story beige house and into the town, the leaves on the ground making the most satisfying crunching sounds as we swished our feet through them. We walked backwards throwing our heads back to watch the sky on a clear night.
New Paltz was so much colder than New York City, especially at night, even though it was less than two hours north. Off of the island and away from pollution, it was usually 10 or 20 degrees colder. The cold seeped through our stockings and into our legs, but we didn’t care. Unaware of the dangers around us and careless with ourselves, we were loving our unfettered freedom. We ran through a town, soaking in streets we would later know well. Through Church street and Main street and past Fat Bob’s and B-Side and the bars, Pig’s, and Cuddy’s (that’s where you go if you want to get fucked,) and Murphy’s, and past where Taylor’s little blue house is now and past where Rachel got raped in the bushes four years later, and past the Chase bank and its blue sign illuminating the corner, and back to the synagogue parking lot to look at the stars again. And when we lied down on the picnic table outside the dorm building at three in the morning we looked at the stars and the Big Dipper and basked in the bright white light from the moon. We felt the kind of pulling upward in your heart and soul and bewilderment of the sheer vastness of the universe and the typical sort of existentialism that people my age talk about a lot; the kind that doesn’t make you question your life, but just humbles you a bit.
Now the stars only make me think of randomness. Now, whenever I see the big dipper, I think of Cosmos, the old TV show with Carl Sagan. The eighth episode, Journeys in Space and Time, features Carl Sagan illustrating thought experiments with retro-futuristic synth accompanying him. Sagan shows the constellations as we know them, first the Big Dipper, then Leo the lion, and Cetus the whale. He runs each through a computer program, showing how stars move, explode, and how new stars are born; all over the span of millions, even billions of years. We see stars as fixed, fate, destiny. “It’s written in the stars.” But Sagan corrects this notion, “Every constellation is a single frame in a cosmic movie, but because our lives are so short, because the star patterns change so slowly, we tend not to notice it’s a movie.” As he runs the cosmic movie back in time, we see the connected dots start to move at varying speeds, weaving through each other and spreading apart into different dimensions, creating arbitrary blue lines connecting to stars, some that have drifted off screen. The once recognizable constellation is now a jumble of blue lines that form a web of randomness, and Sagan explains that constellations are simply approximations of random points in a single frame of a cosmic movie that we will never live long enough to see.
Humans are constantly doing this, making patterns out of randomness. Pattern recognition as an evolutionary adaptation is quite useful, but it comes with false pattern recognition. We connect the stars and declare them constellations, drawn by the gods. We look for clouds that look like different animals or symbols. We search for meaningful signs in randomness. We look for meanings in our dreams and hope for signs from God or the universe or fate. And we find reason in acts without reason. How many times have we been told at a funeral or a wake or an uncle’s Shiva by some woman with silver hair and pomegranates embroidered into her purse and tie-dye pants and Teva sandals with wool socks, “It’s part of God’s plan. It’s all part of something bigger. Everything happens for a reason.”
Sometimes it’s what we need to do to organize a mass of unknown. Sometimes it’s all we can do to grab the closest seeming factors and pull them together to provide some sort of explanation. She was too drunk, she’s too nice to strangers, we got into a fight at Fat Bob’s so she wandered off alone and it was 2 am. Aspects of a night we can never forget seem to align, and we connect the dots that in reality are just a single frame, of which we make random approximations, connecting meaningless details that have nothing to do with why it could have happened. Sometimes we see all of the stars point to us, point to our friends, point to anyone but the one person responsible for the attack. We have a knack for false pattern recognition, looking into the star speckled sky and connecting dots to find animals and objects that can’t exist anywhere else in the universe.
Zara Miller-Rosenberg is a senior at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota.
Photo credit: Bala K via Flickr, All Creative Commons. Image is of the Orion constellation against a dark night sky.