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Looking Up in Peachtree Corners

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rafael garcia astronomy telescope technology
Rafael Garcia. surrounded by his Coulter Oddysey 12” Dobsonian reflector telescope on home-built tracking base. and an Orion Schmidt-Cassegrain catadioptric telescope with guiding motor in the foreground. Rafael used his laptop to run real time astronomical charts, eyepiece camera, and tracking. Sky charts; the old way of locating stars before the laptop and tablet lay before him.

When the brilliance of a clear night sky meets up with a young and impressionable mind, a lifelong fascination can result. Peachtree Corners resident Jay Brantley certainly exemplifies that.

“It started when I was about eight and I got a pair of binoculars and gazed up at the night sky, “he remembers. “I looked at the moon and it felt like I was pretty nearly on the moon. When I was 11, I got my first telescope and things evolved from there. The rest of the house would be asleep, and I was out with my telescope pointing it at the moon, the planets and the stars.”

Brantley started out wanting to be an astronomer, segued into engineering but has maintained his interest in Life, the Universe and Everything (to borrow from a book title) ever since. “There’s just something magical about it,” he said of astronomy.

Rafael Garcia, a retired architect and another longtime Peachtree Corners resident, has a similar childhood tale to tell. “Back around 1968, I had a little refracting telescope in Puerto Rico. We had a second story that had an opening to the sky, and I loved going up there. I could find many things other than the moon,” he said.

Garcia is of the generation that came of age during the moon race of the 60s-and says that also contributed to his decades-long fascination. “The whole concept of space travel was embedded in my psyche,” he said. “I saw the moon landing live on TV, so it’s always something I’ve been fascinated by. And I have always liked science.”

Stars in their own backyards

Jay Brantley, with his 150-millimeter refractor telescope, strong enough to see Jupiter, Saturn and distant galaxies.

Amateur astronomers have been prowling the night skies of Peachtree Corners for decades in parallel with the professionals who staff observatories and research black holes, the origin and evolution of stars and the formation of distant galaxies.

The backyard astronomers aren’t necessarily looking to push the boundaries of knowledge — they delight finding brighter sights, like the moon, the planets and their moons and even much more distant objects like the Orion nebula, star clusters and the Andromeda galaxy in the midst of a city where light pollution has grown steadily worse. Or they head for darker environs such as the north Georgia mountains to look for fainter objects. Others combine a love of roaming the universe with astrophotography, capturing breathtaking images of Saturn’s rings or streaking comets.

The technology involved with telescopes for the backyard buff has advanced steadily and prices have come down in the last 10 to 20 years, cutting out the tedious work of finding and then tracking celestial objects. These aren’t your grandpa’s telescopes.

“At one point, someone — it must have been my wife — gave me one of those department store telescopes,” said Ludwig Keck of Peachtree Corners, “and it illustrated very well why you shouldn’t have one of those. They make big [and to his thinking largely unfounded] claims on what you can see. They come with a tripod and a mount that aren’t very stable. And, of course, it has no drive, so you have to constantly reposition it.”

Modern consumer telescopic equipment of the last 10 to 20 years is a far cry from that. Motorized mounts and computer control make celestial tracking objects a snap — no constant repositioning.

Enthusiasts say you can program the equipment for a nighttime tour of whatever planets are visible, for example. Pair one of those higher-end telescopes together with a laptop, or even an app-equipped iPhone or Droid, and you’re in business.

Eyepiece and phone cameras can yield spectacular photographs. Even that app-equipped smartphone by itself can find and follow landmarks in the sky — no telescope required.

Spectacular night shows

Of course, one thing that hasn’t changed from the old days is the awe and wonder of having a front row to the universe.

Rafael Garcia’s photo of the moon during a solar eclipse, August 2017.

Jay Dunn is an assistant professor in physical sciences at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College. He teaches taught a slate of astronomy and physics courses and co-presides over the observatory on the Dunwoody campus, apparently the closest such facility to Peachtree Corners.

He says a major factor in his continued passion for the science is watching the amazed reactions as visitors peer through the eyepiece of their 14-inch telescope. “Even with less interested astronomy students, when they look through the telescope, they might drop an expletive,” he said.

Unfortunately, the observatory building was shuttered at press time due to COVID-19 restrictions. Dunn said they plan to reopen after getting the go-ahead from Georgia State officials.

Dunn is a professional, published research astronomer but is well in tune with what visitors like to see. He says the moon is most popular, particularly in the first quarter because shadows create an extra viewing dimension. Saturn and its rings also rank high.

Peachtree Corners sky watchers don’t disagree. Brantley says Jupiter, Saturn and distant galaxies are the preferred observational targets as objects that one can get more detail on, in contrast to stars. And when he points his 150-millimeter refractor telescope at the moon and invites youngsters to peer through the eyepiece, “They are absolutely mesmerized.”

Speaking to that same sense of youthful fascination, Keck was a Boy Scout leader and before taking kids on a campout, he’d consult a star chart and to learn what could be seen and what part of the sky it could be spotted in.

“I remember one trip where the Scouts were rowdy and talking and wouldn’t go to sleep, so well past midnight, I told them we were going on a star walk. After some hemming and hawing they complied,” he said. “We walked to a big field. And they were just fascinated. It was beautiful and clear and there were so many stars it was hard to pick out the constellations.”

The astronomy bug can be passed down through the generations. Garcia said his daughter is a semiprofessional photographer who does a great deal of astrophotography. He himself has linked an eyepiece camera to his motorized refracting telescope to take moon and eclipse shots and has posted them to a local photography club website.

Advice for stargazers

A word of caution — patience and technique are key for such photography. Forsyth Countian and retired broadcaster Jim Ribble has shot a plethora of sky pics. He says with fainter objects, the necessary light-gathering can take hours.

If he’s photographing Orion, for example, he might take hundreds of shots and then uses software to stack the 30-second frames into one, brilliant whole. He uses an 11-inch telescope and explains that the bigger the telescope, the more light it can gather, a key factor that outshines that of simple magnification.

And he enjoys the challenge. “It’s pointing the camera at a dark spot in the sky and realizing that it’s filled with incredible, colorful objects,” Ribble said.

Getting started in the hobby is akin to others, said astronomy buffs, as you can pretty much spend as much or as little as you want — $100 perhaps for a decent pair of binoculars to as much as $13,000-$15,000 for a very high-quality telescope.

With more time post-retirement, Garcia looks to point his higher-end refracting and reflecting hybrid telescope upward to find more galaxies as well as observing some of the planets. More digital photography is in the offing as well. And he’s among those who think that the SpaceX program and NASA’s plans to return to the moon and go onto Mars may fire up additional interest in celestial gazing.

For Brantley, there’s a strong linkage between astronomy and elemental questions of existence and origin. “You ask yourself the existential question ‘Are we alone?’ You look at another galaxy and it’s like our own, with billions of stars. Is there life there? There’s a philosophical debate on that and a religious debate. These are questions we’ve been asking ourselves since the dawn of humanity.”

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BRACK: Peachtree Corners to lose Peterbrooke Chocolatier

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Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson.
Scottt Gottuso and Geoffrey Wilson. Photo provided.

Peachtree Corners will soon lose one of its most iconic, popular and tasty businesses.

Peterbrooke Chocolatier, run by Geoffrey Wilson and Scott Gottuso, has been told by Peachtree Forum landlords, North American Properties and Nuveen Real Estate, that its lease will not be renewed. The last day of business will be July 25.

Meanwhile, Peachtree Forum is getting several new stores. They include Kendra Scott, Sucre, and The NOW Massage. Previously announced were Alloy Personal Training, Cookie Fix, Gallery Anderson Smith, Giulia, Lovesac, Nando’s Peri-Peri and Stretchlab. Wilson adds: “We are not in their big picture.”

Wilson has operated Peterbrooke at the Peachtree Forum for 14 years and Gottuso has been there nine years. They have made the chocolatier profitable and doubled sales. Wilson says: “We turned it around through community involvement and made relationships. We worked with the schools, gave donations, did a lot in the community, and made a difference. We produce most everything we sell in the shop, so it’s labor intensive. We make European-style chocolate treats from scratch from the very best ingredients, package it, make gift baskets, and also sell a lot of gelato.”

Key items include truffles, hand-made caramels, cherry cordials, chocolate-covered cookies and pretzels and strawberries hand-dipped in their own blend of chocolates. (They are all good!) One of Wilson’s and Gottuso’s most iconic products is chocolate popcorn. Once you try it, regular popcorn is tasteless. “We sell a lot of it.” Wilson adds: “Gelato sales have carried us in the summertime, since there are not many chocolate holidays in the summer.”

Peterbrooke now has five employees, and would like to have 10, but it is difficult to hire people with the skills in chocolatiering. A key part of its business is corporate companies, such as Delta Air Lines and Capital Insight. The Peachtree Corners’ Peterbrooke has corporate customers as far away as Cleveland, Ohio.

The operators were surprised when the Forum owners did not renew its five year lease. “The big decisions were made in Charlotte or Cincinnati, not locally,” Wilson feels. “We were no longer in their big picture. They want new and glitzy, shiny, fancy and trendy.”

The operators plan to start their own chocolate company, to be called “Scoffrey,” and initially sell online, plus have pop-up locations during holidays, and possibly have a booth in other merchants’ stores on occasions.

“Whatever we do would look different. We might rent a space somewhere close by so that people can still have the good chocolate experience with us, but we won’t have a regular audience walking by.”

Another element: the price of chocolate futures has spiked this year, with a bad crop production year. Wilson says: “That is key to our business and a huge cost increase. That doesn’t help.”

Wilson adds that the forced closing of the Peterbrooke location “is something like the death of a friend. But you go to the funeral and to the wake, and in six months or a year, It won’t be so bad.”

Have a comment?  Send to: elliott@elliottbrack

Written by Elliott Brack

This material is presented with permission from Elliott Brack’s GwinnettForum, an online site published Tuesdays and Fridays. To become better informed about Gwinnett, subscribe (at no cost) at GwinnettForum

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The Transformative Trail: Dr. Sunit Singhal’s Journey to Wellness

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The highest peak in Tanzania also known as the “roof of Africa" // Photos courtesy of Dr. Sunit Singhal

For more than two decades, Dr. Sunit Singhal has been a member of the Peachtree Corners community. In February 2001, he opened Suburban Medical Center, making a significant contribution to community healthcare. Under his leadership, the medical center has expanded, notably by introducing Suburban Med Spa next door.

A 1988 graduate of the University College of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, Dr. Singhal furthered his expertise in the United States, completing his residency in Internal Medicine at Harlem Hospital Center in New York.

An awakening at the Grand Canyon

A few years ago, the 60-year-old physician had an eye-opening moment about his own health. Most of his life was spent being overweight, which he accepted and managed the best he could.

“It’s not a secret that I was overweight. Anyone could see it; it’s how I was my whole life,” said Dr. Singhal.

The pivotal moment for Dr. Singhal was his attempt to join friends on a hike at the Grand Canyon a few years back. Despite his determination, Dr. Singhal was unprepared for the hike’s demands.

“I thought, okay, I will meet my friends one-third of the way down the canyon from the opposite end. That way, I can keep up with them towards the end of the hike,” he shared.

The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro

Even starting much later, Dr. Singhal struggled greatly with the hike. He experienced knee pain, breathlessness, and exhaustion. His struggle not only slowed him down but also his friends, who had been hiking for an additional 12 hours before he joined them.

The ordeal ended in the middle of a cold night, leading to a physically taxing recovery period that left Dr. Singhal sore for days.

Despite the arduous experience at the Grand Canyon, Dr. Singhal didn’t retire his hiking boots. Feeling motivated to conquer the obstacle, he began walking long miles with friends to get into shape.

A few months later, the call of the canyon echoed again, and friends proposed a new challenge: hiking from the South Rim to the river and back. While less daunting than their previous endeavor, the task was intimidating.

“This time, I was able to make the hike without holding anyone back,” he shared. Dr. Singhal already saw the difference his efforts were making.

His triumphs over physical and mental barriers were clear and exciting. Dr. Singhal’s return to the canyon increased his resilience and personal growth.

Conquering Kilimanjaro: a test of determination

Following a series of hikes through the Grand Canyon as his health improved, Dr. Singhal and his hiking group set their sights on Mount Kilimanjaro. They regularly engaged in 10-mile hikes each week to prepare for the trek.

(left to right) Singhal, Kashish, Vani and Mahender Gupta.

“It was never on our minds to simply skip or cut the hike short because we didn’t feel like it that day,” Dr. Singhal said. Even family members occasionally joined, keeping pace with the senior group with varying success.

When the time arrived for their Kilimanjaro quest, they needed to identify the number of days their group would need to complete it.

“There are different levels you can choose for hikes. If you are very athletic, the 5-day hike is for you. It goes all the way up to 9 days if you need to go slowly,” Dr. Singhal explained.

The friends chose the six-day option. It seemed like a good balance of their confidence in their fitness coupled with a conservative approach. Yet, they completed the ascent in five days.

“We couldn’t believe we finished at such a quick pace. We weren’t straining ourselves to do it. It was the natural pace we wanted to go, and we finished with the group we viewed as the most fit and athletic.”

Mount Everest on the horizon

The hiking group isn’t resting on their laurels, though. The crew continues to meet and train for their next goal, climbing Mount Everest.

“There’s a lottery to be accepted to climb. We entered and are hoping to be selected for a hike this fall,” Dr. Singhal shared. When asked if he felt intimidated about this potential hike, he confidently replied, “No, not really.”

The team of friends will hear this summer if they are selected to climb.

Health and hope

Dr. Singhal’s health journey is the perfect example of the potential for change at any stage of life. It also highlights the importance of self-care, perseverance and pursuing one’s goals, regardless of the starting point.

His patients can rest easily. He isn’t walking away from his practice for the mountains full-time. Dr. Singhal is committed to his practice and patients. He firmly believes and displays that personal improvement and professional dedication can coexist harmoniously.

“I want my patients to know that I am equally dedicated to being here for them and their own health journeys.” When he’s not hitting the trails, Dr. Singhal can be found spending time with his family in Duluth or at his practice in Peachtree Corners.

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Local Youngsters Learn Life Lessons Through Community Service

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Images courtesy of Young Men’s Service League

What started 20 years ago with two Texas moms looking for ways to get their sons involved in community service projects while spending quality time together turned into the Young Men’s Service League (YSML).

The national organization has dozens of chapters in 20 states, including Georgia.

Peachtree Corners mom, Heather Fleming, heard of a chapter in the northeast part of metro Atlanta, but it was pretty much at capacity.

“The way the chapters work is each class can only have around 30 boys,” she said.

“The more people you have in your chapter, the harder it might be for people to get hours in and just managing that number of people [can be difficult],” she added.

Taking matters into her own hands

Fleming partnered with another mom whose son couldn’t get into the chapter either to start their own.

“She was determined that she wanted her boys to be able to have this experience,” said Fleming.

“Our chapter started with a full ninth-grade class , and then the tenth-grade class was a little bit smaller, with around 20 boys,” she added.

Even though it’s a good way for public school students to earn community service hours, most of the participants attend private schools that don’t have that requirement.

They do it to do good in the community and to have fun hanging out with their moms.

“The whole point is that we only have four years left before our sons go off to whatever their next step is after they graduate from high school,” said Fleming.

“It’s just to have that quality time together, serving the community and then also to give them the opportunity to hear from speakers they would not ever necessarily have access to,” she added.

Preparing the next generation

Fleming’s son Luke graduates next year and he’s found fulfillment in YMSL.

“It has been fun serving our community with many of my friends and their moms. I have also learned a lot from the various speakers we have had over the years,” said Luke. One of my favorite speakers was Tyler Hannel, who spoke about how to be a better version of yourself.”

There are many charities that need volunteers, and many align with the skills and interests of the young men.

“My most memorable experiences were serving with BlazeSports at their annual Big Peach Slam basketball tournament the last two years,” said Luke.

“Watching kids my age play basketball from a wheelchair was so inspiring. I am thankful for an organization like BlazeSports that gives kids and adults with disabilities a way to still compete in a variety of sporting events,” he stated.

Tracey Shell and her son, Carson, have similar views.

“Our first year was last year, so I didn’t know about this organization when my older son was in high school,” said Shell. “They learn about things like life skills and leadership, … but the real heart of the organization is volunteering in your community and learning about local philanthropy.”

Each YMSL chapter works with a certain number of nonprofits each year—usually nearby. Although this chapter is called the John’s Creek Young Men Service League, it has members from Peachtree Corners, Norcross, Berkeley Lake, Alpharetta and John’s Creek.

YMSL donates time and energy, not money

Every year, each chapter does what it calls the ultimate gift. This time around, the Johns Creek chapter went farther outside its boundaries and helped the Atlanta Music Project (AMP). It’s a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to provide tuition-free world-class music training and performance opportunities in under-resourced communities.

In October, AMP presented its first event, which brought together its entire community of performers for an afternoon of music and fellowship. The AMP Experience took place at Pullman Yards and featured performances from past and present students, with about 500 participants in total.

To pull off such a feat, AMP needed many volunteer ushers and stage crew. That’s where Johns Creek YMSL stepped in, with nearly 80 local YMSL volunteers who gave 246 service hours. Mom and son volunteers loaded instruments, set up and cleaned up, served as parking lot attendants and greeters and supported social media outreach.

Both Fleming and Shell have seen their boys grow and mature and are proud of the young men they are becoming.

“They become more aware of the different nonprofits and philanthropy that are just right in our own backyard that they might not have known about,” said Shell.

Fleming echoed that sentiment. Her older son Andrew is a sophomore at Clemson University, and she’s seen him carry the lessons learned at YMSL into his daily life by being actively involved with service projects in his fraternity and a mission trip over Spring Break.

“He definitely has a heart for helping others, which … is the ultimate goal. When they’re not living at home, and I’m not necessarily making them serve, they want to do this on their own in college and beyond,” she said.

For more information, visit ymsljohnscreek.org.

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