1.1 The Windfall
A windfall is a sudden, usually unexpected, influx of wealth. Winning-the-lottery windfalls are rare. Smaller, but still welcome, are an employee bonus, an inheritance, or a lucky run at the casino. People react in different ways to the experience of unexpected wealth or “found money”. It tells something about a person: the easy-come, easy-go gambler versus the frugal saver who salts it away for an indefinite future.
I have experienced a windfall not of money, but of time. A new company benefit designed to attract and keep employees in a climate of dot-com employment frenzy was announced. It seemed like an inexpensive benefit to advertise: employees of five years or more could take a one-time additional 3-week period, a sabbatical, of “disconnect time-off”. Combined with conventional vacation time, one could be absent for six weeks! But it would never happen. What high-tech California company had employees that stayed long enough to collect such a benefit?
But I wasn’t a California employee. I had held on for over twelve years in stoic Scandinavian style at a small Minnesota company, a company whose flicker of success first caught the attention of, and then was acquired by a Silicon Valley company desperate for people to help it grow, and eager to retain them. It was an unexpected gift, and I now had the dilemma of how to spend it.
My wife Vicki encouraged me. She advised that at the end of this period I should be able to point to what I had done in this sabbatical so that I would always feel that it had been distinctly and purposefully, if not wisely, used.
This isn’t everyone’s choice. Just like gambling winnings and found money, different people make different choices. I noted that my coworkers, saddled with the same dilemma, chose widely varying ways to use the time. Those who traveled heavily in their jobs stayed home, content to relax in a way they yearned for while on the road. Those with little or no work travel signed up for exotic cruises and other adventures.
Vicki had watched me strive in my off-hours to learn the arcane skills of taking astrophotographs. Although simple in principle, pictures of the night sky are difficult to make in practice. She had seen me experience the thousand things that go wrong in this peculiar hobby, from the tortuous wait for weather conditions that are beyond control, such as clear skies on a moonless night, to learning by trial and error to use a telescope, camera, and dozens of pieces of various support equipment, in the dark, to then discover yet another factor that must be mastered before a good picture of a galaxy or nebula can be obtained. Vicki knew that this would be the right way to spend my unusual gift of time.
I had had the unfortunate experience of beginner’s luck. Some early astrophoto efforts had yielded attractive results, and I had spent the years since trying to replicate them. Now I could focus entirely on this purpose. I could stay up all night every night, practicing, testing, trying, learning, and not worry about reporting to work the next morning!
I had also discovered that nighttime landscapes, with their distinctive long exposure startrail patterns make stunning pictures, especially with the right foreground. And what better foregrounds are there than the trees, mountains, and lakes of our western states, states known for their big skies, skies that are not cloudy all day?
A plan was made. I would go on the road, taking my astrophoto equipment with me, seeking out the dark skies and mystique of the western landscape to make pictures. I would start before the new moon, the best time for this type of activity. When the moon starts to become full again, astrophotography becomes difficult as the brightening orb throws light into the sky, washing out the faint cosmic targets. But this would be an excellent time to join with my family to enjoy the mountain scenery and the hiking and exploring that comes with every camping trip.
My wife and son would fly out to join me in Seattle and we’d explore Washington and Oregon until their return flight two weeks later. The moon would be waning again, and I would find my way home following whichever direction seemed to hold the clearest weather, resuming my astrophotography sessions.
This was a plan that promised to meet the criterion that Vicki posed. I’d be able to forever describe how I had spent my windfall.