The Stars at Night

The morning after the first night I stood on my balcony, nineteen floors above the city, bleary-eyed and bare but for boxer shorts, warming my skin in the Texas sun and listening to the electric guitars far below.

Neither the chainsaw ring of six strings nor the drummer’s ankle thump of beating drums had ceased since I downshifted through traffic into Austin the day before. All through the night and into the dark hours of the early blue Texas morning—and then at the sparkling moment of yellow sunshine on polished bank windows—the guitars wailed on and on, like some toddler’s tireless tantrum or an injured wild beast, begging to be shot.

From my own private stratosphere at the Omni, my ears picked out the scattered phrases of music: rock and punk and bluegrass and folk all melded into a kind of beautiful electronic mess that spilled upwards.

I came to South by Southwest (SXSW) for the music—I followed Willie Nelson and his airbrushed tour bus up I-35 to the grand capital of Texas with the lure of nonstop coolness and the chance, for once in my life, to be riding the rolling wave of new trends that is about to wash over America.

I met one of these future trends while waiting in line for my press pass, the Montreal-based electronic band Doldrums, who appeared so waifish, pale and underfed that Texan passersby might easily mistake them as the consumptive ghosts of the Alamo’s fife and drum corps, long dead now these 177 years.

“I love your band’s name,” I offered, and when they blinked back at me, I just kept on talking.

“I’ve even been there before, to The Doldrums,” I nodded, thinking of those long days at sea in a place where nothing moves, not even the waves.

The band stared at me, clueless and unimpressed.

“Like you were down in the dumps?” one of them asked.

“No—like, in the Doldrums . . . ”—as in the windless flat seas below the equator where sailing ships get trapped for weeks, suspended by nature’s lacking motivation, I thought—“you know?”

Doldrums the band did not know Doldrums the maritime expression, and that is how in my first five minutes at SXSW, I killed the cool with all my nerd.

SXSW is part film festival, part renaissance fair, part Las Vegas tech conference with a whole lot of music and promotion thrown in. I opted for the music and out of the catalogue of alphabetized small-print bands on offer, there was exactly one that I truly cared to see and hear live. No matter the big name acts like The Flaming Lips, I had my sights on one band: The High Highs.

So far I had missed hearing them. If ever was in Brooklyn, they were elsewhere, and whenever I am elsewhere, they are off touring in Australia or something.

And so I pretended to be organized and made up a schedule, drawing lots of underscores and circles and stars around The High Highs and until that moment arrived, I dabbled in whatever other music I encountered: Optimo, Cold War Kids, Skinny Lister and Lucy Rose, who looked like a frail pigeon up on stage, stomping happily on her guitar pedals.

Not only were the stars of screen and radio walking the streets of Austin (I met Deadmau5—without his mask), everybody was secretly trying to discern the famous from the ordinary and more importantly, the soon-to-be famous. This is the essence of SXSW—the guessing game of who will shine brightest in the years to come, so that one might look back and recall, “Yeah, I saw them first—at SXSW.”

Austin is a cool city—there’s no denying it. And the coolness flows far beyond the country alt rock carnival of Sixth Street and out to the organic taco trucks and indie breweries and cowboy boot shops.

Eager to show me the wider realm of Austin, Texas, my friend Sara picked me up and drove me to the east side of the city—far from the strains of impresario guitars and street shows to a quiet vegetarian-friendly café.

Sixth-grade schoolteacher Sara Hemenway is my hero—not only because she teaches my favorite subject (geography) to some 138 students—but because she loves what she teaches and uses the Internet to keep her class connected to the entire world and outer space, too. I met Sara online almost three years ago when she and her students followed my trip to Antarctica, tweet by tweet. Since then, all of us have traveled together online, around the world and back again.

Sara’s mother follows my journeys online, too—and she is also a teacher. In fact, Mary Kay Hemenway is a professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest universities in America with over 52,000 enrolled students. After dinner, I went with Sara and her family to campus where we rode the elevator to the top of the university’s Physics, Math & Astronomy building (which is regularly open to the public).

The sun had set and Austin began to sparkle like a field of summer fireflies testing their lights. The vague roar of guitar songs returned, but this time I was standing on the roof and watching the flickering city compete with the flickering night sky.

Amazingly, though I stood at the center of the electric-lit Texas capital—I could see the stars of space with my naked eyes. It helped that I had an astronomer standing next to me, guiding me through the wilderness of space with a six-inch rooftop telescope.

Mary Kay focused the lens on the slender crescent moon, glowing white. Through the telescope, I could see the outline of the entire lunar surface, a dark globe burning within a shimmering circle of white light.

“That’s Earthshine,” she explained, and in that instant, I learned something that I had never known before—how even at night, the sun’s ambient light reflects off the Earth and back into the sky, lighting up the dark side of the moon. The fact is, Earthshine is not visible in most places due to light pollution but at dusk, above downtown Austin. I could see the celestial sphere quite clearly.

“I wish I had my tripod,” I whined aloud, kicking myself for not bringing it with me. But then, like magic, Mary Kay the astronomer handed me one shiny, industrial-strength metal tripod upon which to mount my camera and photograph the beautiful night sky.

“Thank you!” I responded, “What a great tripod!” Apparently, astronomers use them, too.

“Well, astronomers like tripods but undergraduates tend to break things,” Mary Kay explained, “So we need the good stuff.”

As Sara and her family counted off the seconds of my long exposure, I watched each new star step out from the darkness. Meanwhile, Mary Kay began punching numbers into a computer, setting the giant 16-inch University of Texas telescope into motion.

“It’s an old computer,” she explained, “so it still uses DOS.” A few blocks south of us, the tech gurus of SXSW were discussing the oncoming tech wave of augmented reality while up here, on the roof of the city, we were using ancient software to connect us to the living planets of the solar system.

“Now look in there—that’s Jupiter,” said Mary Kay. I blinked my eye and held my face against the cupped eyepiece. Right in the center of the lens, shining and in focus, was the pink-streaked marble of planet Jupiter. Four twinkling white moons hovered nearby and all I could say was, “Wow.”

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I know that I am lucky to see what I have seen in the world—places like the Sahara and Patagonia and the Antarctic ice shelf, but staring into space and meeting a planet up close for the first time—well, it’s like meeting a friend from the Internet in person. You feel like you know them so well, you’ve referenced them for years, but suddenly you see the reality and stop guessing.

Meeting Jupiter for the first time was so enchanting. Like a child I whispered Hello Jupiter into the telescope and the planet hovered.

“And how is the weather on Jupiter today?” I asked Mary Kay.

“Rather violent,” she answered and I checked again, watching the swirling red clouds some three hundred million miles away.

Then she maneuvered the telescope again, focusing on Orion’s belt to show me “some nebulosity.”

Nebulosity is a word that best describes the overwhelming, yet fun, musical mishmash of SXSW—a million bands playing back-to-back in more than hundred different venues over the course of a week. Small-name acts mingle with the big stars and the result is a kind of sparkling cloud that is beautiful yet somewhat indiscernible.

Only upon further reflection of the word “nebulosity” did I remember that at that moment, I was supposed to be at the Empire Room listening to my band, The High Highs. I checked my watch—five ‘til nine. The band was there, I imagined, up on stage, getting ready to play before the hungry crowds of the largest musical festival in Texas—and me, their biggest fan, who had traveled three thousand miles up and down and across Texas to hear them in person, where was I? Stranded on a rooftop, my eyes glued to a telescope, watching the stars high, high above me.

The Orion Nebula was no more than a sparkling puff of diamond white tethered to a few poignant stars, and yet I was mesmerized by this celestial show—a brilliant spectacle that hangs above us everyday, only visible to me because I mounted a university tower and took the time to gawk at the starry Texas sky.

They say that if you stand on the Texas star beneath the rotunda of the Texas Capitol in Austin and clap, the sound will echo back at you in crisp acoustic reply. Instead, I stood in the Texas capital and looked up into the dome of outer space—the only place that might actually be bigger than Texas.

Instead of clapping, I blinked—and the echo of the stars rained back down on me. It was a soft sound at first—a buzz and the warm cry of the soul, growing louder with every second that I listened. Vibrating waves of sound rose up to my eardrums, hovering like the moons of Jupiter around my head, a blissful revolution of discordant music . . . the joyful din of a thousand electric guitars.

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