If you could have looked down through my ceiling during the evenings – not just the evenings – of October 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, November, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 (yesterday), you would have exclaimed: “No more! I can’t bear this! Basta! Of course this has to be the last Astronomical Calendar! Go to bed!”
Finishing the thing has always been a crisis in crescendo. No, not for the first few years. We used to celebrate the sending of it to the printer by going for a feast out at the restaurant by the lake in Table Rock state park, in the mountains north of Greenville, and this was in October, just at the time when the forests were in the zenith of their famous fall foliage, rich with orange maples.
But the Astronomical Calendar became better, by adding features, and these had to be included from then on. Like a snowball. And the methods became more streamlined, and yet the process kept taking longer. I began starting work in late summer, then earlier summer, leaving only the spring for diversions. One summer I camped in a field north of the Furman University campus, in the morning washed in the lake and then paddled my rubber boat across it and began work in the room my friend and patron Professor Bill Brantley let me use. Later, the sense of pressure reached back into the spring; later, I felt I’d better get started on the next Astronomical Calendar right after finishing the last. The streamlining came to be done by computer, so that what had been done in hours or days, by careful fingers with pens and straightedges and French curves and Exacto knives and rubber cement and Rubilith, and a calculator and card indexes and studying of lines of numbers in the US Naval Observatory’s Astronomical Almanac, and lists of procedures that were supposed to become a Manual for Compiling the Astronomical Calendaar, was done in minutes and later seconds. And now, quicker than you can take your finger off the key it has just hit, the computer has flashed an answer or created a chart by searching nine catalogs, multiplying the six hundred terms for the position of the Moon, solving Kepler’s transcendental (that is, strictly unsolvable) equation by iterating until the correction is less than 0.0000001, solving it for every position of every moving body, and trigonometrically twisting everything through celestial and ecliptic and galactic and altazimuth frames pf reference and viewpoints from the Sun and the Earth and your eye, all this before you tap the keyboard to go to where you can see the picture it has created; and yet, the time consumed did not become shorter. It became ever longer. Things that could be done with the computer suggest more things that should be done.
One time, a friend sent me to meet a businessman in Maryland who was interested in being a distributor for the Astronomical Calendar. In his house we talked about it, and he liked it and said he was interested in being my sole distributor, relieving me from a lot of fuss – if I could have it ready by August.
No way. To make a wall calendar for 2016, you could find twelve nice pictures; you could see to that in, say, January of 2015, or, to have even safer lead time, in 2014. You might even do that with an astronomical calendar. But not with a book (which the Astronomical Calendar had become) about the year, including its looming comets.
Another time, Doug Roosa, who had been my first part-time helper, talked with me from where he had moved to and said: “I expect by now you just press a button and the Astronomical Calendar comes out!”
I wish. Given another 43 years, that could come about.
Professor Benny Soldano, hardened cynic, said to me: “Smart scheme, eh, making this annual so people have to pay every year?” And he suggested I incorporate (which I never did), otherwise rascals would steal it from me as they had stolen his profound cosmological theories. Yes, my substitute for a regular job. But I had never meant to spend my life doing something like this. (I had meant to spend it wandering in Asia.)
Every year, the “final throes,” as I used to call them when explaining why I couldn’t attend to anything else, dragged on longer than ever before. Or so it seemed, but since the previous years’ ordeals had faded into a haze there was no saying which was really the worst. But I think this year’s was. There was a night when I went to bed at 8 AM and lay for half an hour and got up; surrounded by days starting at 3 AM and nights with four-hour holes in them.
I couldn’t tell you about any of it. In this blog I said that I’d have to keep posts brief “because it is more important to make sure Astronomical Calendar 2016 is in print next month.” But that was on October 14, and as days passed I was blogging not only briefly but rarely, letting the Orionid meteors pass, along with Muslim New Year, the Venus-Mars-Jupiter “trio”, the dichotomy of Venus, the twisting of clocks back to normal time, and the Creation of the World, which according to Archbishop Ussher took place on October 22 in 4004 BC, at nightfall, by Garden of Eden Time presumably. I didn’t have time to think about them, yet I couldn’t explain that this was because I was still working on the Astronomical Calendar. You might have feared this meant it was running behind schedule (I was the only one who knew it had no such things as schedule and deadline) and would get printed inconveniently late for you to give it to your husband for Christmas, or sell it on to your customers, the shops that need to stock it for the Christmas trade, and you might cancel your order or think again about making it.
That is my confession. I’m happy to tell you that it looks as if printed books will be ready Nov. 23.
Finis Day came on November 2. This was the sending off of the files through cyberspace. Or, since that was somewhere near another hazy midnight, it could have been into November 3. I’m calling this epoch Finis Day not only because it is a neat term that I hadn’t thought of before but because it happens to fit with the final Astronomical Calendar. The cover picture shows pilgrims walking through a night of the year 1000 AD toward a headland, beyond which they see, towering out of the Atlantic horizon, the Milky Way. The headland is Cape Finisterre, called in ancient times Finis Terrae, end of the land, or of the world.
As we speak, pilgrims are walking through the nights of 2016, streams of them northwestward. I’ve been too busy to read the daily news about the refugees, or anything else, but now I’ve read “Ten Borders: one refugee’s epic escape from Syria” in the New Yorker of Sunday 8 November. A piece of journalism stripped of the author’s self, of opinions and judgments, of everything but the minimally described facts of a few selected people’s stories; compelling you to see what it’s really like to be a migrant.
After the Finis Day of each Astronomical Calendar I could relax, turn to the “After the Rush” box, and go to bed early, a wholesome plan that I somehow never manage when alone; sleep maybe my average six hours, if I have such a thing as an average. After what surely has been more work than on any previous Astronomical Calendar, I even dare to hope, as each previous time, that it may be the first to be perfect, at least the first free of errors; even the first without later-occurring regrets for things I could have done but didn’t.
Not quite. In the course of the year I hear from helpful people, “I’m puzzled by a difference between pages 8 and 41,” “The time given by the Connaissance des Temps is an hour later,” “The running head on pages 52-53 says Astronomical Calendar 2014,” “Surely there is something wrong in the positions for Ceres,” “Yet again you haven’t understood my point about the reason for this,” “Surely you know that the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer differed at that date.” This hasn’t begun. But that’s because nobody has seen the book.
Finis Day is for me a moment, an epoch, but it’s not and cannot be a definitive one. There are things to do after it even if nothing goes wrong. It’s like an earthquake that’s followed by aftershocks; it seems like the Normandy landings, but it proves to be like the Normandy landings if the Allies had been partly driven back out to sea and had to ask to come back ashore. Final throes have after-throes, because files sent through cyberspace and “preflighted” by the printer’s tech team turn out to be unopenable, or contain traces of magenta and yellow in pages that should have only black and cyan, or claim to use a font called Myriad I’ve never heard of or used and to lack Greek letters that I have – how would the stars cling to the sky without them? – or drop a picture out of its box because PDFCreator didn’t understand GIF format, or turn overprinting off so that the Moon’s shadow on the Earth isn’t transparent and the seas don’t show through – this last problem happens every time and the printers forget how they were persuaded to rectify it last time. And in the course of re-making and re-sending the pages I notice, say, a typo that hadn’t been caught even by the clear eyes of John Goss (see my acknowledgment to him for proofreading) because it was in a page finished too late for me to send to him.
And so, looking down through my ceiling even after Finis Day, you would have seen me reaching only voicemail at both of my Customer Service Representative’s numbers and trying, with earphones on my head because PCs don’t have microphones, to learn from a YouTube sent to me about how to zip files because DropBox can’t make a public link from a folder. And settling, with a sigh or worse, to re-do what has to be re-done.
But while doing this I also noticed small improvements, which now are not too late to make. They wouldn’t drive the schedule later, because the printers are asleep till tomorrow morning. Several of these bright ideas related to the cover picture story, which is so long that it had to be continued on pages where there was space – threaded through the book.
For instance, at the end of the story I had filled a space with a chart of the sky the pilgrims on the front cover are seeing; but because I wanted it to show the arch of the Milky Way over their heads, which is the point of the story, I made it with the usual convention of the south at the bottom. It is what those pilgrims would see if they turned their heads left. And it is the sky of the Andromeda Hour: hour zero in sidereal time. The Andromeda Hour was the theme of the cover of the third Astronomical Calendar, and the basis of the concept of the “Heavens by Hours,” which Fred Schaaf has taken up in his columns for Sky & Telescope and which I hope he will make into a book. Of course! The time in the picture is the Andromeda Hour, because I had arrived at it so as to have the Milky Way standing in the west.
All this was done, safely packed into the book, along with the rather heavy point, presumably not original to me, that the superstitious pilgrims don’t just see the Milky Way as the extension of their pilgrim road into heaven, they see its centerpiece, Cygnus the Swan, long neck and outstretched wings, as the Cross. (Of all Julius Schiller’s suggestions for Christianizing the constellations, this is the most obvious, though I think Boaz for Boötes along with Ruth for Virgo are the most likable.) But at my next inevitable circa-3 AM waking I thought: did I mention anywhere that besides Deneb in Cygnus, the other two parts of the Summer Triangle, Vega in Lyra and Altair in Aquila, are in the picture and you can make out the Lyre and the Eagle, faintly (they had to be painted not too obviously)? So I had to go back to work and check. No, I had not. It was simple to do, with a small caption. The caption became larger when it occurred to me that what the great constellation should be is neither a swan nor a cross but an Albatross, which is almost a cross between them. Its wings are twelve feet from tip to tip, it lives over the oceans. “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.”)
Well, I think that was a bit of an enrichment. And I think you’ll find some others that crept into the calendar-pages sky scenes and their captions, precisely because they ended by being scrambled together, in such a last-minute – well, last day or two – hurry that I even abandoned my usual care to to keep files harmonized with each other and just made changes on the page, that is, in the desktop-publishing application that I still use, called Quark. It isn’t handy to write in Quark; it’s rather like cooking the dinner on the table instead of in the kitchen.
It’s after Finis Day and I’m getting to bed early, sometimes. But the 3-AM waking seems engrooved in my brain, for a while; and the thought that turned it into a getting-up, last night, was the first regret. There was one phrase in the cover-picture story to which I could have added a word. Trying to describe one detail that we saw on the pilgrims’ route, I had said: “these propositions are engraved” – referring to some words cut into the surface of the road. I had wondered whether I should write something like “these interstingly varied propositions are engraved,” or “these subtly different propositions are engraved,” meant to come back to it, but forgot to, so the phrase remained: “these propositions are engraved.” – But this is going to take a whole lot more explanation, deserving a new chapter, and damn, it’s past midnight again, so that’s enough for now.