Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Work in Progress: The Power of (Thinking You're) Being Watched

I don't know about other people (though I have my suspicions), but I definitely find that one of the great uses of social media is accountability.  Post something on Facebook and a blog, and the world might not care, but the poster thinks it does. Sure did work for me this week.  After months of inactivity, one post about updates and additions, and suddenly the goals have moved back into focus. And so, happily, there is progress to report, and upcoming activities to invite friends to join. Here's the report.

1. Rock climbing. The unacceptably long stretch of no outdoor climbing finally came to an end on Saturday when two of the Hall-of-Famers of the original year of 52 New Things, good friends Amanda and Josh, joined Jon and me for a day of outdoor climbing in Rumney, New Hampshire.  The tricky part about Rumney is that, unlike top-rope friendly nearby Bolton, where I have climbed outside most, it's all bolted for sport climbing.  This means that, instead of casually walking to the top of the cliff and suspending a climbing rope, someone has to "sport climb" from the bottom, fixing the rope in place with the bolts and pieces of equipment called quick draws.  Then, someone else climbs up and unclips and removes ("cleans") the quick draws and then anyone can climb up while tied to a rope from the top ("top roping").  The lucky part of this is that 1. Jon was able to do the sport climbing on the routes we wanted to top rope, and 2. we all got some practice sport climbing some of the easier routes.
Climbing Frosted Flakes was fine, once Jon had nicely done the lead climb to set it up.

Added bonus: swimming and playing with the slack line Josh brought in the nearby river after we were done climbing. Here are Josh, Amanda and Jon contemplating our next move.

2. Figure skating.  Ironically, this is the most time-dependent goal, with my test looming in the future on Saturday, August 22.  So of course, this is the goal I did the least on this week, though it's partially not my fault.  I take lessons twice a week, Friday mornings in Waterbury and Monday nights at Leddy Park in Burlington's New North End. But my Friday teacher has been in Scotland, and an evening meeting made me miss my Monday lesson.  In recognition of this fact I hit the public ice time at Leddy on Sunday afternoon.  There were lots of kids and milk crates, but I was able to carve out some space to practice back outside edges -- one of my weaknesses that I will be tested on.

3.  Getting (and getting better at being) outside. Getting the blog back going has been a great incentive to put some summer hiking into high gear. Two weeks ago I did three hikes in three days -- none very taxing, all with fire towers.  They were Spruce Mountain, Mount Elmore and Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire.  All of them got me outdoors with cool people and two of them were in places I'd never been.  Then last week I had another first -- having a whole peak to myself.  A great thing about blog accountability is that it challenges me to be more independent -- if I say I'm going to do something and no one wants to do it with me, I can learn to do it by myself.  That was the case on last week's early morning hike up Stowe Pinacle.  This had the lovely side effect of having the whole top of the mountain to myself. I really like hiking with friends, and the opportunity it gives for long conversations out in nature, but it's been fun to discover that I can hike any time I feel like it since I don't have to wait for someone else to want to join me. Yesterday, though, I was back to hiking with friends, in this case, Camel's Hump with Katie B.    So, five hikes in a little over two weeks; feels like this one is coming back together.
What I didn't know about solo hikes is that it also hones the fine art of taking selfies.  When you're the only one on top of the peak, it's up to you to take the picture.
Katie and I beat the crowds when we did a morning hike up Camel's Hump.

4. Yoga and acro yoga.  I'm feeling a little frustrated that I've fallen so far behind on this one.  Acro yoga is lots of fun, but at least in my case, it's hard to progress because that means being willing to fail before you succeed -- with a partner.  It's one thing to try something and fail ten times all by yourself with no one watching.  But with acro, everything is with a partner, and a spotter as well, so there are two built-in witnesses to the failure.  It's a good way to work on fear of failure and self-consciousness generally, but I definitely find it challenging. Still, I'm doing a little better at making both yoga and acro more regular in my life, so maybe the next post will show some real progress.

No, I can't do this one.  But it sure looks cool, doesn't it? Nick and Ashley were working on this one while Steve and I were doing some more mundane work on "tick tocks" near the Winooski traffic circle.

5.  Becoming a better (more grateful, compassionate and mindful) person.  Some cool developments on this one, particularly the establishment of a Facebook group for an on-line book and volunteering club.  There are twenty members, and it's not too late to join.  We just voted, and the first book we're going to read is Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. I need to write my first couple of thank you letters this week, and figure what this month's volunteer opportunity will be.

What's Next

1.  Rock climbing.  Climbing outside at Rumney was a great motivator to get back to climbing a lot more, indoors and out.  I have a rope and anchoring equipment -- if anyone wants to go to Bolton or Falls of Lana in the next week or two, let me know.  In the meantime I'm also shooting for climbing indoors at least twice a week.  Jon and I usually go on Friday evenings, and welcome others, and if anyone wants to go another evening or during the day, with a little advanced notice that can definitely happen.

2.  Figure skating.  My Friday teacher is back from Scotland, so lessons await on Friday morning and Sunday evening.  I'm also up to do Sunday open skating at Leddy this coming Sunday between 4:15 and 6, and maybe a more expensive (non-public) practice session during the week.  If anyone wants to join, send a message, please.

3.  Getting outside.  Don't think I can do any hiking this weekend, but next week I'm definitely game.  I might join the Peak-a-Weekers on Wednesday night, or do another early morning hike on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday.  If anyone wants to join, let me know! 

4.  Yoga and acro yoga.  No big plans here.  Lots of acro yogis are headed to New York City this weekend for an acro festival, but hoping that people will be up for some pick-up practices in the next week or two. 

5.  The Be Better Book and Volunteer Club is up and running with 20 members!  We're starting with Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron, and the first on-line discussion will be Wednesday, August 27.  Not too late to join, send me a note if you'd like to. I'm also taking suggestions for my first volunteer experience, which needs to be completed by the end of August.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Work in Progress: Update and Addition

One of the greatest things about good friendships is that they help us keep on track.  When we stumble and struggle, good friends are here for us, and when we stray from the things we said we'd do, they're around to remind us to get back on track.  This post, the first in a very long time, is a grateful response to my good friend Leah's not-so-subtle nudge that I've been slacking.  She's right, and it's time to get the Work in Progress moving again, and to add another component.

Back when I started this blog, these three fabulous friends and former students -- Jamila, Leah and Siham -- collectively came up with about half the things I did.  I'm glad Leah recently pushed me to start a new iteration.

A Work in Progess is the most recent iteration of this blog, which began as 52 New Things, a tracking of the 52 (one a week) experiences, places and challenges I took on in the year of 2010. The blog then extended into 2011 with more New Things, and then became a travel log for the year I spent teaching and exploring in the country of Jordan.  A Work in Progress was envisioned to focus in four areas of activity that I started during these earlier projects: learning skills and appreciating the outdoors; rock climbing; figure skating; and yoga and acro yoga.  The idea was to see how far I could get in these areas before my 50th birthday (December 10, 2016).

I'm still committed to those four goals (although I've done a terrible job working on or documenting them up till now), but recently realized what was missing.  All four of these goals are important to me.  But when I hit 50, I went to simply be a better person.  I want to be more compassionate, feel more gratitude and be more mindful. So, I'm adding a new goal.  Here it is: 5. Work on being a better (more compassionate, mindful and grateful) person.

My hope is to borrow shamelessly from the wisdom of others to get there.  I sm pretty sure I can't just wish to make it so, so I'm going to take three action steps on a regular basis.  They are:

1.  Actively seek to support my own community as a volunteer, like my friend, the talented acro-yogi, Steve Kuhn.  Steve volunteers all over the place and is one of the most generous and compassionate people I've ever met.  I think it's not a coincidence.  My goal is to find and complete a new volunteer experience at least once a month between now and when I turn 50.

2. Cultivate gratitude by thanking people to whom I'm grateful.  The inspiration for this one is my friend Ginger, and I hope she won't mind me blatantly copying her brilliant idea.  She told recently that when she turned 50 she celebrated by writing 50 thank you letters to people who had helped her become the person that she is.  I love that idea, and I have 17 months to do the same thing.  Fifty thank you letters for fifty years of living.

Ginger, looking off into the distance from the top of the Spruce Peak fire tower. She's a wise one.

3. Read and learn from the wisdom of others. One of the unrealized goals of previous years was to start a book club.  So, I'm circling back to that one, with a twist.  All the books I want to have for the club will be selected with the criteria that they offer wisdom on becoming a becoming a better person.  I have some authors in mind I've always wanted to read -- Parker Palmer, Pema Chodron, some I'm curious about -- David Brooks (don't agree on his politics, but found his essay taken from his new book, The Road to Character, really good), and some I've found helpful before like Melody Beattie and Brene Brown. When I suggested a book club on line a couple of years ago, a bunch of people were interested.  I'm hoping some still are, and we can hold a once-a-month online discussion on that month's reading.  But even if it's just me, I'm going to read a book a month to make me a better person.

In previous years of this blog, probably my favorite thing was that almost everything I posted about I did with friends -- current and past students, colleagues, family and old friends, some people I barely knew and some I knew incredibly well. I'm hoping that will happen again, and so, like in the Year of 52 Postings, I am going to have a listing at the bottom of each post. It will be called What's Next.  It will say anything that's coming up on each of the 5 goals, in the hopes that people will want to join in and do things together (and let me know that, please).

So, thanks again, Leah, for pushing me to get moving again.  Hope you'll want to sign up for some of what's next!

What's Next

1. Get outside. Haven't done nearly what I should, especially given that it's summer in Vermont, which is as good as it gets in terms of a time and a place to be outdoors.  But I started to turn it around a little last week when I did three hikes in three days: Spruce Peak with Ginger and the Peak a Week club; Mount Elmore with my friend and former student, Kyra; and Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire with another former students and friends Kate and Ben.  I'm hoping to do a hike on Wednesday morning and/or Thursday afternoon.  If you're interested in joining, give me a shout, please.

Kyra was my rock climbing/Wilderness Program co-conspirator.  She graduated in May, but I'm glad she's still finding her way back to Vermont to get outside together.

2.. Yoga and acro yoga. This goal is in terrible shape, but I'm at least getting back on track with the yoga side of it with Tuesday and Thursday morning classes at the Y with my friend Paul.  I'm also hoping to start going to classes at Sangha Studio where I took acro yoga classes.  If there are friends interested in doing some acro yoga in the next two weeks, let's plan some!

Haven't been doing much acro yoga at all, but when I was in Michigan a couple weeks ago, my niece Tigist was loving it!  I might need to find another 50 pound partner to keep things easy.

3. Figure skating. Last week I took a big step for me and signed up for my first official figure skating test (Pre-Bronze Adult Moves in the Field).  Now I have a month to practice and get ready.  I have lessons on Monday night and Friday morning.  There are open skating sessions on Sunday and Tuesday afternoons I need to start attending to practice.  Who wants to come?

4. Rock climbing.  Another place where I've really dropped the ball.  I haven't been climbing outdoors this entire summer, and haven't been much inside either.  But I want to.  If people are up for either, shoot me an email, and let's get going.

5. Be a better person. As noted above, there are three activities here: 50 letters, once-a-month volunteering and the book club.  If people are interested in any of the three, I'm going to start a private Facebook group people can join to keep themselves accountable, share ideas and plans, and post thoughts for the book club.  If anyone is interested, let me know.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Work in Progress: The Two-Year List

Two years to see how far I can get on four different challenges.  That’s the plan.  I have until December 10, 2016 (my 50th birthday) to see what I can do to improve myself in these four ways.  Not that all kinds of other new and old things are off the table, but these are the ones I’m going to track (the plan is to use the blog as a sort of journal that marks milestones along the way as well as quarterly check-ins).  Here’s my list.  As always, nothing would make me happier than to do some or all of these in tandem with others who are interested (literally together or keeping track long-distance).  One thing I think I’ve learned since starting this blog is that, while it is true that we are the makers of our own destiny in so many ways, it is also true that the world is full of teachers and fellow students who can show the way.  The path that has taken me this far on these goals has been full of these teachers (many of whom were, ironically, also students at a previous point), and I anticipate and hope that the same will be true this time around.

1.      Appreciating and becoming competent in the outdoors.  One of the radical changes in my life began with an increase in hiking and my association with the SMC Wilderness Program, and continued with my relationship with Jon, a naturalist and huge fan of all things outdoors, who has introduced me to a wealth of new experiences, people and interests.  In fact, I started writing this post from the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest in Costa Rica, where we explored rain forests and cloud forests and then, dry forests as well. Over the next two years I want to increase both my appreciation for nature, and my skills in enjoying the outdoors. I’ve become a big fan of day hikes, and Vermont is a target-rich environment on that one.  But I also want to break the tether a bit and get more comfortable with camping and water travel (canoeing and kayaking) and backpacking and being outdoors in the winter (on snow shoes and cross country skis and microspikes).  I have a near-phobia when it comes to equipment, and am constantly sure I will break something or not be able to put it together right.  I want to be able to put up a tent and use a water filter and a cook stove and generally get more comfortable with the gear involved with being outdoors.  I also want to train my body to transport myself better – up hills, over long distances, carrying heavy things (like backpacks and canoes) and over water.
And equally importantly, I don’t want to just become a peak-bagger either.  I want to also learn to enjoy and be in nature.  I want to be able to slow down and notice what’s around me, and learn some animals and plants so I can recognize them when I see them (and spot them more often). I want to be able to see and appreciate how it all fits together, and the beauty of the components and the totality they create.  I want to appreciate where I am, not just move through the space. It’s a tall order, but I have some excellent resources – Jon, the SMC Wilderness Program (in which I am slowly progressing), and a host of friends, who have already provided me with some experiences in this area, and are lots better than me, to learn from.

This little red eft epitomizes my hope to become a person truly at home outdoors.  Whenever I do a hike I always count it as extra-special if there is an eft sighting along the way.

2.      Yoga, meditation and acro yoga. This one feels like I came to it sideways.  I’ve always been one of the least-flexible people I know.  I’ve never been able to touch my toes or do the splits or bend my back.  It vaguely bothered me, especially as a kid, but I just figured that’s the way I’m built.  But when I was living in Jordan a couple of years ago one of the other Fulbrighters, Jayme, got me started doing a little bit of yoga and I liked the way I felt afterwards.  At first I thought the meditation bits of it were mostly annoying, but then I started realizing that they had a great effect on me as well, and after my meditation class that I took this year, I was even more convinced that they had a real place in my (and everyone’s) quality of life.  And then trying acro-yoga, a partner form of yoga that is combined with acrobatics, convinced me that putting a focus on all three of these areas together might really help me in lots of ways.  Obvious ones, like increasing my flexibility, balance and strength, and less obvious ones, like working on patience, contentment and self-awareness.  On this one, I’m trying hard to embrace the idea that it’s all about increasing my own levels of these qualities in comparison to my starting point(s), and not in comparison to any else.  So, I’m enlisting Jon’s assistance to help me document these starting points so I can do quarterly comparisons.

Inversions -- in any form of yoga -- are not a strong suit.  But let's see how far two years can take me.

3.      Figure skating. I think when most people think of figure skating, they think of long-legged teenage girls in pretty skating dresses doing jumps and spins.  Me, too. But something I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that figure skating is for anyone who has access to a skating rink and a desire to learn how to do it.  It takes a lot of practice and patience, but it’s there, and there’s even a little community of other adult learners who are there to provide support and information and examples of what can be accomplished.  I’m now taking an adult figure skating class once a week and a second weekly class where I work on beginning ice dances and the qualifying skills for my first official adult test.  In the next few months I’ll lay out my goals for specific skills I want to accomplish and milestones (testing and otherwise) I hope to hit over the next two years.  Of all the things I’ll be working on, I have to admit I find this one the most fun, and I’d tell anyone who thought it’s too late, because they never learned how to figure skate (or skate at all) as a kid, that there’s no time like the present to lace those skates up and get going!  It’s great fun, and just about the coolest thing going to realize you can do something hard while balanced on little steel blades and gliding over a surface of ice.
We don't usually skate in dresses, but every once in a while it's fun.

4.      Rock climbing. Rock climbing was one of the great gifts that happened from my initial year of 52 new things.  As I have noted elsewhere, that’s not because I have any aptitude for it.  It’s taken me a long time to get a still-low level of competency, and I still have lots of hang-ups, like fear of falling when bouldering and anxiety over anchor-setting.  But the flip side is that I lived the vast majority of my life thinking that it was an activity for other people, and definitely not for me. It’s fun to do, and a great sense of accomplishment when you get up a route for the first time.  The movements translate into a better sense of balance and strength in areas (like fingers and forearms) that don’t normally get tons of exercise.  It’s a great form of exercise generally.  But for me, I think an equally great thing about it is the friendships it has helped to initiate and foster.  I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a host of past and present students at Saint Mike’s—Cliff, Josh, Dan, Michelle and especially Amanda and Kyra top the list – for getting me started on this great pastime. In the next two years I want to become a better climber and learn some of the technical skills to be more independent outside.  This means going up a grade or two on top roping, get better at sport climbing and learning to set my own protection (or at least trying it).  It also hopefully encompasses getting over my fear of bouldering. I’m pretty sure if I can do these things, I’ll be working through a whole host of fears as well, and come out a stronger (character-wise as well as muscle-wise), more confident and adventuresome person as well.

My first-ever outdoor lead climb.  My friend and climbing buddy, Kyra, was warming up for her turn next.

My first goal in working toward these four areas is to figure out exactly where I am, and so in the next few weeks I’ll be doing a bit of personal inventory to figure out my starting points and maybe some short-term goals. If anyone among my friends and family saw one or more areas on this list that they, too, would like to engage in more deeply for the next couple of years – or if the list inspired your own longer-term goals that you’d like to pursue in tandem, let me know.  This is one journey that will be easier and much more fun with lots of fellow travelers along the way!

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Things Round-Up 2014

My blogging for 2014 has been less than stellar; in fact it's been nonexistent since July.  However, I'm picking things back up for two reasons.  First, I actually did do some more cool new things in 2014 that I'd like to record, at least in a cursory way, and second, I have a fun new idea I want to do, and want to wind up reporting on this year's project first.

So, here is the summary of new things I've done since the April Salamander crossing I last reported on.

 The first four all occurred during a summer trip I took to Tanzania with Jon, and two students, Shannon and Kyra.  We did lots of things I'd done before, like staying and volunteering at the Ilula Orphan Program (IOP) and visiting Zanzibar.  But I also got the chance to do some new things, like these:

1.  Carry water on my head.  In a previous trip the IOP staff had given me a little lesson in the backyard, but I got more extensive tutelage while visiting  foster family, the Msigwas, who had three of us over to learn how to prepare dinner local-style.  That included going to the local water spring to get all the water we would need and carry it home on our heads. Here's what it looked like:

Water is heavy!  The Msigwas very graciously put a lid on my bucket so I would have the gratifying sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to safely carry at least a comparable load to the average rural Tanzanian five year old.

2.  Get to know an African fish market up close and personal.  Funny the things you pass by, or maybe quickly pop into, on your way to an actual tourist attraction.  Instead of walking by the fish market on the waterfront in Dar, Jon and I had the opportunity to get to know it pretty well, via the excellent guiding of Afriroots, a local Tanzanian-owned and operated tour company that does both safaris and walking tours. We learned that fish markets can teach a lot about not only fish and local foods, butÅ¡ also globalization, gender equity and social norms.  A really cool and unexpected learning experience, all ways around!

3.  Go on a water safari.  After Shannon and Kyra went home, Jon and I got to do a safari in the Selous, a game reserve that is much less-known than the Serengeti, but also much larger, in the south of Tanzania. While there we went on a traditional day-long game drive, but we also had the opportunity to do two other forms of game-watching I had never done before. The first was a water safari – exploring the Rufiji River, and it’s resident wildlife – from the resplendent hordes of bright green kingfishers that nested in the mud walls lining parts of the river to the lazy crocodiles drifting by our small boat to the wonderful hippopotamous that stared at us before sinking down into the mud with just their ears showing above the waterline. It was an awesome perspective from which to view the river’s inhabitants, and I highly recommend it.

Sitting on a island in the Rufiji River that was shared by more than one crocodile.

4.  Go on a walking safari.  This was also a first in safari experiences.  With our guide, Didi, a former elephant poacher, we did a morning hike that taught us volumes about the sad realities of elephant poaching as well as giving us a greater appreciation for these great animals.  Along the way we also learned more than anyone might want or need to know about elephant dung (including the fact that you can smoke it); hippo dung (which is used as a trail marker by fathers to help babies find their way to the riverside); giant termite mounds (the ultimate communitarian communities) and millipedes (which look terrifying but actual just eat plants, mostly rotting leaves).  It’s a very different experience than viewing predators and prey from inside a jeep, and while it covers less territory and leaves great space between the visitor and the wildlife, to me it felt like a much more authentic experience than being driven around. 

Jon and our walking tour guide, Didi, learning lots of lessons from a very mammoth termite colony.

5. Operation Experience Vermont: This is one I’ve wanted to do since I had my original year of 52 New Things. So much of that year was filled with new things I was introduced to by students and former students, and I’ve always wanted to pay that wonderful favor that they did for me forward.  So in summer 2014 I did.  Kyra and Shannon both were able to go to Tanzania funded by Summer Academic Research Grants from the Academic Vice President of Saint Michael’s College.  They needed to write the papers they had proposed when we returned from Tanzania.  We agreed that, instead of having ordinary meetings in my office, we would have weekly meetings at a new place for lunch that neither had ever been to, and then do a Vermont-based activity that neither had ever tried.  By the time the summer was over, we had gone: blueberry picking, indoor rock climbing (new for Shannon), Lake Champlain Chocolate factory-touring, hiking on Stowe Pinnacle and Mount Mansfield, paddleboarding on Lake Champlain, and (with special guest appearances by Jon and fellow Summer Grant Recipient Michelle) to a show at what my friend Paul calls “the happiest place on earth”, Bread and Puppet, in Glover, Vermont.  The papers got written, Kyra and Shannon got a healthy dose of all that is fabulous about Vermont summers, and a great time was had by all. This is one New Thing I would love to repeat.

Who cares about a little rain when you're about to watch a Bread and Puppet show? Kyra, Shannon, Michelle, and I were all very happy that Jon had some contractor trash bags handy.
Our last Operation Experience Vermont just had to be a hike up Mount Mansfield (followed by Maple Creemees), which neither Kyra nor Shannon had done before.

6. Be Part of a 3-Person Relay Team. I’m a slow runner, which makes races, especially ones where my performance affects the whole team, hard for me.  But, I also really enjoy doing things with a team, and having goals to work on. After we came back from Tanzania, I needed a good short-term project to get me to start doing longer runs again, and splitting the Mad Marathon turned out to be a great incentive.  We did it on the 4th of July weekend under a pretty hot sun, but with Jon and Lynn’s far faster performances, we even managed to place third as a relay team!

Important Mad Marathon discovery: the key to success as a slow runner is to have fast teammates.  I had the last and easiest leg, so I was still in running gear, while Jon and Lynn had already changed theirs.

7. Spend the 4th of July on Top of Camel’s Hump.  During the first year of 52, one of my favorite things I did was to hike Camel’s Hump, probably the most famous day hike in Vermont, in all four seasons.  That experience made me an official fan of Camel’s Hump, and I really love it that every time can be unique.  So when some of our friends suggesting going up to the top of Camel’s Hump to watch 4th of July fireworks, that seemed like a brilliant plan.  Turns out that fireworks look very small from the top of the mountain, but we saw them – from towns as far away as Plattsburgh in neighboring New York (not surprisingly, the well-heeled town of Stowe had the fanciest display).  It also turns out that – even on the 4th of July – Camel’s Hump gets mighty cold in a hurry once the sun goes down.  We weren’t the only ones with this plan, but there was enough room for the fifty or so hardy souls atop the mountain, and I’d say we all felt pretty satisfied with ourselves for putting in the quad workout to get the highest seat in the state for watching the displays below.

An obvious bonus to getting up Camel's Hump in time for Fourth of July fireworks is getting to see Mother Nature's display first -- a most spectacular sunset.

8. Visit Hildene. One of the goals of the second year of 52 was to try to focus a bit more on sights and experiences a little closer to home.  I love New England generally, and Vermont particularly, because much of its role in American history has been preserved pretty well. I come from a family of Presidential Home visitors, and so it was only the tiniest of stretches to add Hildene, the family home of Robert Todd Lincoln to the list of places to visit. This is also the place where Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln was brought to live out the rest of her days.  It’s a beautiful estate with some wonderful gardens and views, as well as lots of historical info about the Lincolns and the railway industry that Robert Todd Lincoln was hugely involved with in Southern Vermont.  Very worth checking out.

9. Take a Meditation Class. This was a goal that I never reached in my original year of 52. The older I get, the more I realize the truth in the idea that we think determines everything else. But it somehow always seemed too difficult or abstract to really try to learn how to observe my own thoughts, and even harder to clear them all away and think of nothing at all.  Luckily, my excellent figure-skating friend Liz, runs a meditation center on the waterfront in Burlington, and let me know when she’d be teaching her four-week class for beginners.  I took it in the summer, and am so glad that I did. I certainly have a long way to go, but feel like it gave me a fabulous tool for learning all kinds of things – focus, and letting go and clearing my mind for starters.  I find it hard and requires some self-discipline, but really worth the effort.

10. Set an Anchor by Myself.  One of the best things that came out of my original year of 52 was rock climbing.  I enjoy it for all kinds of reasons – working on new skills, learning to use and move your body in different ways, the team work that comes from working with your belayer, the great feeling that comes with finally getting up a route.  But one thing I cannot say is that I am a natural.  I am definitely a person who will have to work twice as hard to get as half as good as most of my friends.  And that goes for the actual climbing as well as the technical work of learning to tie knots and set anchors.  So, it is with a great deal of happiness that I can report that in summer of 2014 I finally began setting anchors by myself!  Still a ways to go before I want to do it without having someone to check my work, but progress, and that is exciting.

Just looks like a bunch of rope around a tree, but it's not.  It's an equalized, redundant, non-extending, safe and (sort-of) timely anchor signed off on by my friend Amanda.

11. Find a Geo-Cache.  A bunch of people had suggested this one.  I like the idea of searching for something hidden by someone you don’t know, and it’s a great way to explore a new area, or one you actually know well and have always taken for granted.  Jon and I found ourselves next to a cave in Hubbard Park in Montpelier after entirely too much searching.  I’d be up to search for some more sometime.

12. Help Lead a Wilderness Hike.  As a college professor, I occasionally have a student who’s on the five year plan for school.  For whatever reason, the typical time frame just won’t work.  That’s the way my experience training as a Wilderness Program leader is turning out.  As the oldest Wilderness Leader-in-Training in the College’s history, and as a professor and department chair, I embody the problem of scheduling and work conflicts with training.  Luckily, the program staff, Todd and Eben, have been remarkably gracious and agreed to put me on my own five year plan to allow me to slowly acquire the skills I need to become a full-fledged wilderness instructor.  In the meantime, in fall of 2014 I hit the point where I could be an assistant leader for day hikes.  And so in October, I assisted Kyra in leading a trip up Mount Mansfield.  Everyone went up and back safely, most signed up for more trips, and I was asked to assist in leading a subsequent day hike up Mount Ellen, so I am going to chalk it up as a successful new thing!

Just a couple of months after we hiked Mount Mansfield as part of Operation Experience Vermont, Kyra and I led a group of SMC students up as part of a Wilderness Program hike -- my first turn as an Assistant Leader.

13.  Hike Mount Washington.  I’ve been wanting to hike Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, since I moved to Vermont.  For years, I didn’t think my body could do it, then I didn’t have the opportunity.  So this year, when the Saint Mike’s Wilderness Program announced its overnight hike I signed right up.  It was really a day hike, but we camped at a local camp ground so we could get an early start the next morning.  The hike itself is pretty long for a single day, and the one thing I hadn’t been prepared for at the summit of our slog was being greeted by a massive parking lot full of carloads of tourists who drove up.  We had taken more time than we meant going up, so had to leave posing in front of the official Mount Washington sign to the people who drove.  But I surely wouldn’t do it any other way.  Mount Washington (except for the parking lot) is worth the trip.

With no opportunity to do the usual group shot in front of the sign, one of our hike leaders, Matt, snapped this photo of the rest of us at the summit right before we began heading back down.

14. Take an Acro Yoga Class. Many of the New Things I tried in 2014 were inspired by other people and this one certainly was.  When we first met Jon told me that he had a deep appreciation for acrobats, and so it made sense that once he heard about acro-yoga a partner system that combines acrobatics and yoga poses, he’d have to try it.  Soon, he and our friend Lynn were doing all kinds of amazing poses on Wednesdays in Montpelier and I wanted to see what it was like.  My good friend Amanda and I tried it out at a "jam" in Burlington, which I wrote about in an earlier post, but that didn't really give us what we needed in terms of the fundamentals. Luckily, a beginner series opened up at Sangha Studio in Burlington and it only took the teensiest bit of arm-twisting to get Amanda, as well as another former student, Jolie, to take the class together.  It’s challenging for sure: it takes strength and balance and flexibility in quantities I don’t really possess, but it’s also very developmental, and even the beginner stuff is tons of fun.  It’s also a great motivator to work on regular yoga and exercise to be able to bring those skills to bear.  I’ll definitely be staying at this one.

My favorite pose that we learned in the beginner's course.  If you do "regular" yoga, you might recognize Dancer Pose, only upside-down.  Here's Steve "basing" me while Jolie spots from the side.

15. Run a Turkey Trot.  In the world of fun runs, this is one I had never done, but always wanted to.  When Jon and I decided to visit my parents in Michigan for Thanksgiving he suggested we see if there was a local one in the area.  Sure enough, the Muskegon Y was doing a 5K, and we hopped on.  I had also set up a Facebook group for friends who had committed to running at least a mile (or doing some other form of exercise every day) from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and this was a great way to begin that running streak as well.

After years of saying I wanted to do one, finally a Turkey Trot. Lots of new snow added a bit of challenge, but it was tons of fun and made Thanksgiving eating a little less guilty.

16. Host a Wigilia in Vermont. Wigilia is a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner that was introduced to my family by our close family friends, the Szuberts, when I was in elementary school.  Although our families have scattered, the Szuberts still always celebrate Wigilia, and often members of my family do as well, as I blogged about before.  But for many years I’ve wanted to host one in Vermont, and never been able to – until 2014.  Like lots of things that seem to be difficult to pull off, this required a bit of flexibility, and the help of some good friends.  Instead of holding the dinner on Christmas Eve, we held it on December 20 as a solstice celebration, and our friends Lynn and Ed, who have a lovely house with much more space than my little condo, volunteered their place.  But the other rest of the elements stayed pretty close to the script.  Jon and Amanda and Meghann learned lots about making ushkas and pierogi, we discovered that caviar is not plentiful in the Green Mountain state (though we found it!), and I also learned that the only way to buy unconsecrated communion wafers (for the first course) is in bulk. It was a wonderful dinner, and one I hope to be able to repeat in Vermont again. 
Ushka making on my coffee table.
Katie, Amanda, Caitlin, Meghann, Ed, Lynn and Matt waiting for me to make the first toast to start us off, while Jon played photographer.

It was also a lovely way to wind up a year of great experiences and discovery, and open the way to a new project. This year on my birthday (December 10), I turned 48, just two years away from the landmark 50.  I've decided I want to turn my focus from new things to working on deepening my experience and skills around some of the things that have come into my life as the result of the many new things I tried in 2010 and beyond.  So, for the next almost-two years I want to focus on tracking my progress in four areas, and hope to turn my blog into a journal where I can record my starting points, challenges and progress on a quarterly basis. The next post, and hopefully two more year's worth after that, will be a record of that endeavor.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

13.Help a Salamander Cross the Road

One of the best things that happens when you open yourself up to new experiences is that you discover little worlds populated with events and creatures (human and otherwise) and customs that have been operating all around you, but you just never noticed.  Such is the case with New Thing #13. Although I never knew it till this year, every spring there is a migration that takes places over a couple of nights that is secretly assisted by a tiny army of volunteers.  Although it will happen every year, the exact date is determined by the weather, and so these volunteers must be at the ready, waiting for the onset of warmer weather and then the first warm(ish) night of rain.  For that is the night that many of Vermont's frogs and newts and salamanders go on the move, making their way to the vernal pools where they will mate and lay eggs for the year.  The catch is that there are lots of human-created obstacles -- roads especially -- in their way.  And this is where the volunteers come in. Unbeknownst to me, for years there have been folks who know some of the key places where amphibians are most vulnerable in their crossing, and they return, like the little critters, to those spots to patrol.  This year, I got to join them.

In case you were wondering, this is what a spotted salamander looks like.  How could you not want to help a little guy like this get to his hot date at the vernal pool?

Of course, in Vermont, the weather is always tricky, so in fact, I joined them twice.  The first night, April 22, started out as significantly warmer than the days that had preceded it, and the forecast was for rain.  Jon and I joined our friend Caitlin (and a host of people ranging from parents with little children excited to be staying up past their bed time to a group of three older women with walkers who told us they come every year) on Pond Road near Shelburne Pond and began our patrolling. Alas, very quickly the cold rain turned into hail and snow.  Some amphibians had made the same mistake we had, though, and put their bet on the wrong night, so we spent an hour or so walking up and down our stretch of road and moving some little guys across the road and out of harm's way.

Jon and Caitlin braving the cold and hail and snow to hang out with our amphibian friends.

The next night, though was the real thing.  A much warmer rain was following, and so we returned to our crossing, this time with our friends Amanda and Julia in tow.  Jon was able to increase the rest of our amphibian knowledge and vocabulary, pointing out various types of salamanders and toads and their egg sacks, and increasing our vocabulary with words like "amplexus" (basically, foreplay for salamanders). We relocated teeny spring peepers, and larger (but still small) wood and leopard frogs, as well as spotted salamanders and red spotted newts.

The tree frogs we gave escorts to were as cute as a button -- and not much bigger.

Next year, the plan is to assemble a Salamander-Team-in-Waiting that will be on call for the big night so we can have dinner together and then head out for a few hours of crossing guard duty.  Until then, I'm always on the lookout for my favorite amphibian, the adolescent version of the eastern newt, the red eft.  Red efts live on land during their young adulthood, until they head back to the water and change to their adult form.  They also have a charming habit of showing up during hikes and on approaches to rock climbing cliffs in Vermont, and I think a great day becomes a perfect one if it includes a red eft spotting. 

Our lone red eft encounter during the two nights. As you can see, this little guy was starting to darken up and assume his adult form.  I guess he had decided to put away his childish things and come sit at the adult table (or vernal pond in this case).

The takeaway is this: if your age was in single digits the last time you hung out with frogs and salamanders, it's time to get outdoors.  There's a whole hidden-in-plain-sight world of creatures (and people who know tons about them) all around us, and it's a really worthwhile endeavor to get plugged back into it. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

12. Volunteer with an Environmental Group

It’s pretty hard to live in Vermont and not notice what a spectacular natural setting we enjoy.  I live in the biggest city, Burlington (with its whopping population of about 60,000 people).  From my home I can walk directly down to the waterfront of Lake Champlain, the country’s 6th biggest lake, in about 10 minutes.  I can see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake in New York to the west, and the Green Mountains of Vermont, including the iconic Camel’s Hump and our tallest peak, Mount Mansfield, to the east. While it’s impossible to miss the beauty all around me, it’s only been in the last five years, and particularly the last 18 months, that I’ve started to go a little deeper and see the environment of Vermont up close and personal, and for that I mainly have two sources to thank, the Saint Michael’s College Wilderness Program and my enthusiastic naturalist boyfriend, Jon.  Both have been instrumental in getting me outside, in all kinds of weather, exploring all kinds of activities, landscapes, flora and fauna.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that, when your focus changes in terms of the ways you spend your time and the places you go, your friendship circles shift as well.  Mine has widened to include many outdoor enthusiasts who know much more about the world outside my door than I do.  The two new things in this post and the next one both came about because of this newfound desire to learn much more about the world outside.

When I made my list of new things to do in 2014, volunteering in several forms was on it, including volunteering with a conservation or environmental group.  That turned out to be easy, because one of the coolest people I know, Lynn, is a land steward for The Vermont Nature Conservancy (TNC).  When she learned that I wanted to volunteer she suggested that I take advantage of one of TNC’s day-long volunteer opportunities, boundary marking.  One of TNC’s primary activities is acquiring and preserving pieces of land that are home to unique or essential species or ecosystems, and Lynn has in her care dozens of areas.  She has created a rotating a schedule so that every year during the winter and early spring she and other TNC staff and volunteers walk their perimeter, monitoring and renewing the boundaries that set them off. 

Lynn, refreshing a blue blaze on a tree.  She also had the fun job of lugging around both cans of non-washable paint all day.
The property that I wound up helping to boundary mark, Chickering Bog, is especially near and dear to me because Jon had done an earlier volunteer stint there supervising the building of one of the signs that marks the property.  Because of the particularly harsh winter of 2014 our boundary marking stint was delayed from its originally scheduled date during the winter (when we would have walked it in snow shoes) to the spring, when we slogged through the mud and occasional patch of stubborn snow.  For our mission we carried a bunch of tools: a can of bright blue (nonwashable) paint to renew the blazes on trees marking the trail and boundary lines; metal TNC signs to replace worn ones;  colored plastic tape, a compass and a GPS unit.  The usual plan is to divide into two groups, go around the perimeter from opposite sides, and meet in the middle. But when the day came for the marking, the other volunteers backed out so it was just Lynn, me and her assistant, Becky.  As a single team, we’d need to go around the entire area instead of just half. But that was no obstacle for pros like Lynn and Becky, who are out in the field every week, in all kinds of weather lugging around everything from chain saws to lumber for trail-making. 

Becky getting ready to replace a Nature Conservancy sign on a tree

...and me doing the same thing after she showed me how a few minutes later.
The period known to other English-speakers as “spring” is in Vermont called “mud season” and Chickering Bog was doing its best to embody the meaning of both the terms “mud season” and “bog”.  Along our boundary march we crashed through piles of snow that refused to melt in shaded areas, sank in mud and slid down steep embankments.  But we also saw birds and plants and crazy fungi making early appearances, and cool ice structures existing in the in-between of streams that couldn’t decide whether they were frozen or flowing.
Nothing like running into a bit of bright red fungi bigger than your head.  Note Lynn's booted foot provides a bit of scale.

A natural chandelier of ice formations suspended from a fallen log over a stream.

When we finally completed the entire circumference of the property, we were tired and muddy and splotched with blue paint.  But it was the good kind of tired where you feel like you accomplished something and got to see something that not everyone does – in this case, that elusive moment when one season is sliding into another, and leaving traces of that evolution on a natural environment.   If you get the chance, volunteer for a day with The Nature Conservancy.  Maybe we’ll slide through some mud and search for faded blazes together, since I know for sure that I'll be back.

Lynn and I posing in our muddy, paint-spotted clothes at the end of the day in front of one of the Chickering Bog signs. Everyone can now breath happy knowing that the boundary has been checked and re-posted and all is in good order

Friday, July 4, 2014

11. Climb Outdoors in Colorado

So, like a fair number of other New Things on various lists, this one didn't go exactly to plan.  The plan was for Jon and I to do some outdoor climbing with our outstanding friend Leah, veteran and co-inventor of the original Year of 52. We did go climbing with Leah, and we did go outside with Leah and we did go climbing outside, but we didn't actually do all three of those things in combination at the same time.  Life is like that sometimes.
Since participating heavily in the first Year of 52 Leah left her New Bedford home and relocated to Boulder, Colorado, where she can and does rock climb and snow board to her heart's content. When I put together this year's list, Leah suggested I come out to her new adopted home and try my first trad climb. 
Our gracious host, Leah.
So for this year's spring break, we headed west for some exploration of the city of Boulder, and the canyons and mountains surrounding it. And though bad weather and Leah's work schedule cruelly conspired to prevent us from doing the trad climb outside together, they could not keep us from having a fabulous time.  For, nimble adjusters that we are, we substituted new plans for old ones.  The only full days Leah had were on the weekend, so during the week at night we went climbing in Leah's palatial local climbing gym (and working on lead climbing, something I had only done once and Jon had never done).  One night Leah took us up a local canyon and showed us a very easy place to set some anchors on our own so that the next day we did our first ever-climbing with just the two of us. 
First time Jon and I set a route all by ourselves -- Jon at the top...

...and then my turn.  I think this one was called Dirty Dave's Dumpster Dive.

And while Leah was at work during the week we explored some of the local attractions and hiking spots.
Nederland is a funky town -- half hippie, half Western, all fun.

Visiting the grand hotel that was the inspiration for The Shining (note creepy light in mirror behind us)

When the weekend came, we got stymied once again.  After a week of clear outdoor weather, it snowed and our outdoor climb was sadly cancelled yet again.  But we made the most of it and did a hike through the snow instead.
Brunch at a Persian teahouse while waiting out a very wet storm

Jon, Leah and Pumpkin on the way up Mount Sanitas
When the end of the trip came, my aspirations to try trad climbing had been deferred for a future climbing adventure, but it didn't matter.  We had hiked and explored and rock climbed and met many of Leahy's equally adventurous friends. It was a most excellent reminder of why a week with Leah cannot ever be dull, but just might be different than the original plan.