This week's newspaper column:

Most farmsteads are lit up at night by a fluorescent yard light. When I moved to mine, it had no such light, and I have seen no reason to put one up. I really don’t care to have my yard bathed in an eerie blue glow.

The biggest benefit of a dark yard is the clear view one gets of the night sky. Several times this summer and fall I have stepped outside at night only to be startled by the sight of the Milky Way, the northern lights, and the glowing red dot that is Mars.

Stopping to look at the stars for a while always improves my outlook. I wonder why I don’t do it more often.

Human pastimes range from the wholesome–those which make one feel better about life and one’s place in it–to the unwholesome, those which distract us from our problems, but make us anxious or numb.

Identifying which are which is no problem. Television, talk radio, movies, newspapers, the Internet, booze, even coffee, all agitate or make us numb. But when one reads a good book, tends a garden, rehearses music, cooks one’s own food or practices a craft, one can become calm.

Sounds easy. Yet, despite this obvious knowledge, how near impossible it is to cut down on the unwholesome activities in favor of the wholesome! It’s like pulling teeth to get myself away from the daily news and into something more beneficial. And I must have my coffee.

Alcoholics and drug addicts are often shamed, but they are only those unfortunate enough to have compulsions which have spun out of control, and upon which society frowns. If theirs is a moral failing, it is one which we all share.

In college, I had a classmate who was fighting drug addiction. He was bright, sensitive and talented, and was well on the way to becoming a pilot before the drug problem pushed him into the more forgiving field of English literature.

He told me something which stuck. His drug counselor had on the wall of his office an enormous poster of stars, nebula, and galaxies. Whenever a client came in overwhelmed by their problems and their miserable fate in life, he would point to the poster.

I didn’t understand the counselor’s motives at the time, but I do now. Contemplating the size and complexity of the universe can shrink one’s problems into insignificance, if one truly wants them shrunk.

Late this summer on a Saturday night, after somehow fighting off the urge to drive off somewhere for supper and mind-numbing entertainment, I absent-mindedly stepped outside and looked up.

The Milky Way glowed softly. Mars was bright red. One star out west shone bright blue. To get a better view, I ran inside and fetched my binoculars, as well as a star chart I picked up last winter in Arizona. Thus equipped, I laid down on the cement slab in front of my garage.

I am a rookie stargazer, so it took me an hour to identify the North Star, the Little Dipper, and a couple of the more obvious constellations. Next, I tried to find the Andromeda galaxy, the only object outside of our own galaxy visible to the naked eye.

I failed, despite my chart. Little did I realize, until I walked inside and saw that it was two o’clock, that I had spent three-and-a-half hours in the attempt. The cold of the concrete made my neck stiff for two days.

But it was worth it. Whatever worries were dominating my mind had shrunk to almost nothing. I was tired, but calm and content, a sure sign that one has been engaged in a beneficial pursuit.

It was a memorable evening, and it wouldn’t have happened if I had a yard light.