Those who follow this journal know that I operate telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. As “day” jobs for writers go, it’s pretty cool. This week alone, I’ve helped observe stellar clusters, galaxies, and quasi-stellar objects, and helped with the commissioning off a new spectrograph. However, this job can be challenging at a personal level. My typical shift involves six nights working from 4pm until sunrise plus occasionally one or two additional, partial nights. This time of year especially, that means I have just about enough time to go to a dorm room on the mountain and get six to seven hours of sleep before I have to do it all over again. As a parent, this means that for those days, the only interaction I get with my kids is via the VOIP program, Skype.
The photo shows me at a typical night at work. If all goes well, I’ll get a half hour in the afternoon or during the evening to catch up with my kids on the laptop and find out about their day. Because I work all night, the window to do this can be rather limited, sometime between the time they get home from afternoon activities and go to bed. If I have to wait until I’m at the telescope to call and talk, our time can be even more limited. This isn’t too bad if the kids don’t have much say, but more challenging if the kids have had a bad day. You can’t give a hug over the Skype line. Even if they have lots of good things to say, it’s painful to cut them off when the telescope needs my attention. There can be a lot of distractions if we are moving rapidly between targets or if problems crop up.
Unfortunately, the nature of operating telescopes is such that I can’t just go home at the end of the day. Even if I lived as close as possible to the telescope, I’d still have a two hour round trip each day, cutting the amount of sleep I’d get in the winter down to four or five hours. Another limitation I have is that I can’t use cell phones at the observatory, because they interfere with radio telescopes. Fortunately, tablets and laptops make VOIP capability almost as portable.
Thing is, I do consider myself rather lucky. There are lots of dads and moms deployed in the military who don’t get to communicate with their kids as often as I do and they certainly don’t get to see their kids in person every other week like I do. I’m very grateful for the sacrifices those brave men and women have to make in the service of the country.
I do have to admit to one cool factor about talking to my kids via Skype every day I’m at the observatory. I can’t help but remember the scene from 1969’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when Dr. Heywood Floyd talks to his daughter via video phone from a space station orbiting the Earth. The scene reminds me of my interaction with my kids here in 2014.
I’m grateful that technology allows me to work in this kind of job and allows me to interact with my kids almost every day. However, it can be stressful making those connections work some days I’m on the mountain. So, I do look forward to the days off when I not only have time to write books, I can spend time with my kids.
Don’t forget to visit my books page to learn about my novels and anthologies. I’m guessing there are some books you’ll enjoy. My oldest daughter is getting ready for college and telescope operators, like writers, probably don’t make as much as you think we do. I’m grateful to all of you who read my work.