Today I was in a Dollar General Store, when I saw a cheap telescope. I reached to pick it up, to look at its price, and the cover got dinged up a bit. I paid the twenty dollars for the item, though I have little need for a cheap telescope, because I would hate to be one of those people who damages merchandise and then fails to make it right.
I thought about cheap telescopes, and how much they have taught me. My first telescope was a Sears refracting scope I got for Christmas when I was 10-ish. My father set it up in the back yard, on a cool but clear Christmas evening. I have peered through better telesccopes since, but I do not remember the moon ever looking half as good as it did on that clear night.
I've owned a few telescopes since then, of which my very favorite was the even cheaper J.C. Penney refracting telescope I used to look at the Orion nebula, the planet Jupiter and the Pleiades when I was a teen. It was of poor resolution, but the mirror made it easy to use. When you are used to cheap telescopes, you come to appreciate rich fields more than magnification.
It's one of those puzzling absurdities, not far removed from the current digital camera megapixels promos,
that often a more powerful cheap telescope is much less useful than a low magnification cheap telescope.
High magnification through poor lens viewing a narrow field of vision can be very limiting indeed. A lower magnification with even cheap equipment can be an awe-inspiring event.
This is not to say that cheap is better. Cheap is often not even half a sparkler as good. For my birthday in August, my wife got me a proper pair of Sharp Audobon binoculars. They make bird-watching elevate from
interesting to breath-taking. I wish I could easily affix a camera to what I see through those binoculars--the result would let me make a Texas bird collection I'd post on flickr for people to use for free.
But when one is in the realm of the cheap, one is often best served by immersing (I almost wrote "drowning") oneself in the limitations of the device. I like digital cameras of less than 1 megapixel of firing power, for instance, because the colors can have a pleasingly other-wordly pallor. One learns never to try macro shots, or precision shots, or shots requiring camera acuity. One learns to film what works with a cheap camera.
Cheap telescopes often do best at far less than the 100x or 200x or 450x emblazoned on the box. The trick is to use the lowest magnification available. Even a cheap refractor can work wonders at 30x on a starry night.
A star becomes a faint galaxy. A tiny yellow disk becomes a tiny crescent Venus.
Cheap telescopes are to me also a lesson about perfectionism. I try not to worry that my law degree is not from Harvard or that my law practice takes place in a suburban one-story buliding rather than in one of Dallas' wonderful Pei or Philip Johnson buildings. I learn that there are things I can do in my business model that I could not do when I was a downtown lawyer. I learn also that I cannot do or be everything.
This weekend I upgraded my music software to Magix's latest Samplitude studio, version 14. I am thrilled with it so far, because it ia even more user-friendly. Ever since my brother resusicitated my computer from its night of the living dead (see also Service Pack 3), I have been house-keeping my computer. Microsoft Office 2003, unused on my system and taking up 4GB? Deleted. I use Open Office anyway for my work processing.
All those cool freeware animation programs I could never figure out how to use? Deleted. I cannot do everything just yet, and the simple animation programs I do use (unFreez and Pivot Stickfigure) keep me busy.
I don't really need Fubar 2000 to play my tunes, despite its many good features, when I already have two other systems which are my first and second string audio computer players.
When I had completed my house-keeping, I realized that I had at least half a dozen small synthesizer programs which more than meet my needs for music creation. I could play with them for years, and not have all their secrets unlocked. They are my all-encompassing freeware/shareware cheap telescope. Indeed, any creative thing I do, from this weblog, to writing poetry, to playing blitz chess, to posting photos or making music,
all work on the cheap telescope principle. The trouble with telescopes for the aficionado, I'm told, is that no matter how well-ground one's own lens prove to be, the next fellow has even sharper vision. It always works that way if life is nothing but competition.
Now I own a cheap telescope I do not really need. Perhaps I'll give it away eventually. But a part of me wants to set it up and see the moon. There's a symmetry in that someplace for me. I can't quite describe the balance, but it's something about using what one has to see what one can, and savoring the experience.