There is a picture of me, taken when I was about seven years old, wearing one
of those God-awful yellow helmet things from Radio Shack with a flashing
light and siren on top. I had the goofiest smile on my face, and inexplicably
seemed to enjoy wearing it. My brother found this picture one
Thanksgiving while he and I were going through a box of photographs. He nearly peed himself
laughing. I nearly did, too.
I used to joke that when I grow up, I want to be a fire truck. People
around me would sort of double-take and then say
you mean fireman, right?
I would respond Nope! and then go whooooooo! whoooooo! like a siren.
They'd all sort of move away a little, like the ex-cons moving away
from Arlo on the Group W bench.
To me, the funniest thing about this, beyond the obvious happy insanity of
a grown man going whoooooo! in the middle of the street, was that a
grown man was speculating on When I grow up....
I never did.
If you were charitable, you might call me "life-long learner." I've only recently
left academia, though my current position still rests on the fuzzy edge of
Harvard University. My office is
just up the street from the Center for Astrophysics, on Concord Avenue; I
go there once in a while to attend colloquia, raid their library,
or use their archives of astronomical photographic plates to do some
research. This spring, my organization is co-hosting a one-day conference on
Mira variables with them. I wouldn't have a prayer of
being admitted to Harvard as a student, but I still like
to go there, just for fun sometimes. Like a moth in a sunbeam.
I'm an astronomer. I study variable stars. I study
how they're born. How they change with time. How they
die. I think this is fun. It
satisfies my curiosity about how things work. And they pay me to do it,
Imagine: Fun. Salary. Nirvana.
It boggles my mind, still, how lucky I am to be paid to understand how
things work. To tinker with the universe. It also boggles my mind that
the ivory tower has yet to kick me to the curb and force me to get a job at,
say, a consulting firm, or a telemarketing agency, or a Wal-Mart.
Welcome to Wal-Mart. Would you like a shopping cart? Whooooooooo!
I like to learn about things. I like to understand. When I was
of the books I inherited from my big brother was Tell Me Why. I was
fascinated by the things in this book. Like Why does the moon follow us
in the car? Because it's so far away it appears to move a lot less than
the trees and houses closer to us. Oh.
Then came H.A. Rey's The Stars, and its silly, squat cartoons of
cavemen and astronauts. To this day, I remember getting a charge from the fact that
constellations change over time. I still browse that book now and
then when I have a chance.
The seeds were planted by those books.
I spent eleven years in college and graduate school. Thirteen if you count
my two years as a postdoc. All to look at stars.
This isn't normal. It can't be normal. And
yet here I am.
Some days I come to work at 6:00, hours before anyone else, just to be here, to enjoy the quiet of my
office and think. I love it here. I can't imagine doing anything else.
Sometimes it's hard. Though they pay me generously to do the work that I do, you can probably
imagine that they can't pay me a lot. That's ok, for now; while
money is nice, I like to think that he who dies with the most fun wins, so money isn't really what I'm after.
Sometimes, though, I also regret not being able to work on things more tangible.
The universe is interesting, but awfully remote. I won't be visiting
the objects I study any time soon. My conversations with the stars are very one-sided.
One of my grandfathers was a plumber. My parents still have his box of
tools in their basement. The lid is rusted shut,
and the tools inside are probably useless now that pipes are all PVC, and
fixtures can almost be installed by hand nowadays. When I get despondent about things, I think about career changes.
Computer programmer. "Analyst." Consulting. Plumbing, even.
I sometimes tell myself I could go back to trade school to become a licensed
plumber. OK hours, decent pay, and I work with my hands. No desk, no
scrambling for soft money, no email, no internet.
Then I realize I'd probably never do astronomy again. Some people can
actively pursue hobbies and live vibrant, exciting lives outside of work.
That isn't me. I'm a couch potato when I'm not working, and I doubt I could
keep going when other things move in to take up my working hours.
And that makes me sad and afraid, and I start to look for ways to stay in
the business of learning for a living. There's a grant I should apply
for. Does Sky & Telescope need an article this month? I need to finish
up that book outline and introductory chapter and shop it around. Maybe
NASA's got some E/PO money.
Seeds were planted. They bore strange fruit.
A friend of mine died Monday. Janet Akyüz Mattei. She was my "boss",
but calling her that seems so ridiculous; she wasn't the boss of anyone,
really. A good friend, a mentor, a teacher, a colleague, absolutely. Not that she wasn't a strong and enthusiastic leader, it just wasn't in her nature to be a "boss". Bosses rarely inspire the kind of devotion she did among those who knew and worked for her.
She was a life-long learner, too. She started working at the
American Association of Variable Star Observers in early 1973, fresh from
a stint at the Maria Mitchell Observatory. Within six months, she'd been
appointed the director. Since then, I think Janet's love of learning
permeated everything she's ever done.
I think she was enraptured by the universe. Her wonderful variable stars.
Her flowers. Nature. Travel. People. She was an instant friend to nearly everyone
she met. Perhaps it was because she was just a good, friendly person. But
maybe she looked at every person she met as someone to learn from. Maybe that's why
she hired me back in July 2002.
Janet fought Acute Myelogenous Leukemia for seven months. She finally
lost that fight, when an infection raced through her with no help from her
recently obliterated immune system. She went into a coma early
Sunday, and died quietly Monday afternoon. Her husband said she looked
satisfied when she went. She was 61.
Here at AAVSO headquarters, we're a little lost this week. She'd been on
leave since last September, when the cancer cells were discovered taking
up 70 percent of her blood cell count
and she was instantly admitted to the hospital here in Boston. We'd been
working on our own since then, and we managed to keep things running very
well (if I do say so myself). But her death brought a finality to things; it
feels like her presence is leaving us now, in spirit and in body. There
was always the hope she'd stick around; she was just too positive a person
to die. But of course, she wasn't, and she did. She'll be
buried here at Mt. Auburn Cemetery on Friday. And then we'll get back to
I'm not sure why I'm writing this. Closure, maybe. Maybe to take an
opportunity to share something of myself, something I don't do very often
I'm probably the last person in the universe who should be dispensing
practical advice, but here's a little if you'll allow me. They may seem like platitudes, but they're also true.
I hope she will forgive me for plagiarizing, but like sensei said to Lometa
once, Life is good, but sometimes not nice.
Enjoy your life when you can. It's very short, and occasionally difficult. Try to have
a little fun now and then. And don't be too self-conscious when you do.
Tell people you love them. If you don't have someone to tell it to, find some. It's hard sometimes, but it's worth it.
Don't stop learning. At worst, it keeps your mind happy.
And look up once in awhile. We live in a pretty amazing universe. Enjoy it.
Godspeed Janet. Take care.
Godspeed all of you, too.