Thursday, December 30, 2010

The List for 2011: The Year of the Challenge

Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.  -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

At this point I had planned to be back in Vermont cleaning out the enormous teetering stacks of papers that had engulfed my office during the last weeks of the semester. But as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, talk about your plans. The snow storm that shut down East Coast airports for several days has given me an extra few days on the West Coast with my sister and her family, and some more time out of the office to think about the plan for 2011.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Leah, Siham and I have decided to follow up the Year of New Things with a Year of Challenges.  One of the things I've like best about 2010 is that it has turned new things into a habit for me.  I used to shy away from the unfamiliar and now I find myself constantly looking for new things to try, or new ways to try old things.  So, I'd definitely still like to keep going with new things, but I also want the challenge of really tackling some things that I'm not good at, or haven't mastered, and getting better.

So here's my formula for 2011: 12 new (and challenging) things, and 12 challenges based on things I''ve already started, including two "super-challenges" picked from the life list that Leah, Siham and I also started compiling last year. Something else I learned from last year is that it's a useful thing to be flexible in list-making: new opportunities come up, and friends suggest ideas that hadn't crossed my mind.

With the caveat that the list is intentionally incomplete, and subject to change, the plan for 2011 is:

12 New Things including:
  • Visit the Snowflake Bentley Museum in Jericho, VT.  This one and the next were suggested by my friend and Dominican Republic service teammate, Ashley.   One thing I loved about last year's list was the chance to discover new things in my own backyard.  This is one of them.

  • Volunteer as a dog walker at the Greyhound Rescue in Saint Albans.  I think greyhounds are great, and so are the people who work to give them a life after they've been chewed up by the racing industry.  Don't know why this one never occurred to me, but glad Ashley suggested we do it.

    Ashley getting paper towels for our Dominican Republic group at our Vermonster-eating session last spring. Now that she's done with student teaching, she's got time to do some new things together.
  • Do nothing.  Former student and fellow AIDS activist Madison suggested this one almost a year ago, Tom warned that it is much harder than it seems, and after a year of putting it off, I've decided he's right. But I really want to try, so it's being written in to this year's list.

  • Try sled hockey. My super athlete philosophy colleague Patrick suggested that I could try this at his team practice last year, but it was near the end of the season, so I didn't get to it.  But I'm intrigued, I'm hoping to do this one sometime in the first month of the new year.
  • Leah, the Tall Ship Expert, is dying to show off her expertise to Siham and I on a New Bedford expedition
  • Explore New Bedford. I think Leah should work for the New Bedford Chamber of Commerce.  She's got a whole  itinerary planned, from exploring the Ernestina tall ship to the New Bedford Whaling Museum to the fabulous indoor climbing gym, we're set to go for a weekend of being tourists.

  •  Go to a shooting range.  My friend and student Alexsis suggested this one. She's willing to go with me.  I hate guns, but I agree that it makes sense to at least learn how they work.

  • Try using a pottery wheel.  Julia B suggested this one in a comment to a recent post, and offered to teach me.  Kate B. and Lauren have both become amateur potters in the last year as well, and really encouraged me to try it. I've always been intimidated by the thought of a pottery wheel but think it's time to get over it.

  • Go dog sledding.  When Siham, Leah and I were on our trip to Quebec City, we discovered a number of places that offer one-day dog sledding experiences.  Now I really want to go back and try it.

12 New Challenges (the two off the Lifetime List are marked with an *)
  • Become a better rock climber.  Anyone who's ever glanced at this blog for more than five seconds had to know that one was coming, right? Can't wait to get done with my three-week doctor-imposed hiatus of exercise to get started.
  • With coaches like  Conor and Dan S. how could I help but love this activity?  Now I just have to actually get good at it.
  • Write a book with my students* Already started, and with a 28-person team of students and alumni spread around the US and in four different countries, it's an interesting challenge.  Luckily, it's a Dream Team of students and alumni to work with, and it's a LOT of fun.
  • Matt and Alexsis will be incorporating some of their work on MDG Goal 8 into the independent study course the three of us will be doing together spring semester. In this picture from our  November writers' meeting they're setting up a google group to communicate with all the Goal 8 team.
  • Become a better skier and/or snowboarder.  Loved trying both of these last year.  I bought a Bash Badge to give me incentive to go to Smuggler's Notch this year, and have a great ski instructor, Drisk as a housemate.  Plus, Paul also just started snowboarding, too, so I'll be tagging along with him at Bolton, I think.

  • Run a marathon* I always swore I'd never do this, though at least one friend, Gary, insisted differently, and I put it off indefinitely by assigning it to my life list.  But Colleen caught Siham and me at a weak moment in Washington, DC and somehow convinced us that we wanted to.  I just signed up for a class at the Y to help me get serious about the training for the Burlington City Marathon.

  • Become a better ice skater. Failed at sticking with this one last year, but this year will be different.  Ali is now working at the Ice Barn in Milton and between her and Michelle, I am bound and determined to get back into a skating routine and learn to jump and spin.

  • Become a better cook. Between the cooking new things I learned last year (souffle, fresh mozzarella, pesto and Indian food) plus my December baking spree, I've realized that I really want to become a versatile and good cook.  I am still going to get Dean to give me the croissant lesson, Katrinka is teaching me stuffed grade leaves here in Tacoma, I still want to learn to make homemade yogurt and Claire is all set to do some cooking in early January.  I think the plan will be to try a new recipe or food per week, with emphasis on different ethnic foods I like.

    First baby step on my challenge to become a better cook: learning to make stuffed grape leaves in Tacoma
  • Become a better hiker. I loved the hiking I did last year, and feel like I'm ready to stretch a little into some new and more challenging trails.  The one I'm most intimidated about is attempting to follow Chris up Hell Brook Trail, but I'm game to try it.  Plus, Ashley and Luke have both offered to do  a peak in the Adirondacks, and I still really want to get out in New Hampshire and climb Mt Washington and some of the other Presidentials with Chris and/or Kate.

  • Get comfortable with mechanics. Despite Nigel's excellent lessons, I still feel like I'm just not there.  I think I need a full-fledged, multiple-session class in beginning auto or bike maintenance to feel like I understand it.  Laurie, Kate and Nicole have all offered to do it together, and Chris has offered to give me some more instruction to try to nail this one down this year.

  • Visit Alaska via container ship.  Leah, Siham and I all feel like we're ready ta tackle this one.  The plan is to leave from the Port of Tacoma and sail to Anchorage, and then return via car or plane.  We're all pretty psyched, and now just waiting to find out if the March timing we had selected can work or if we have to wait till later in the year.

  • Study Arabic. Hanging out in foreign countries with Siham, who is fluent in both French and Arabic is very humbling. Jordan is one of the most wonderful places I could ever imagine and I definitely plan to go back. So, it's time for me to bite the bullet and try to learn the language a bit, even though I think it seems much harder than French or Kiswahili, the two languages I've struggled with in the past.   
Listening to Khaled and Siham go back and forth effortlessly between Arabic, Friench and English during our Petra adventure made me wish I could as well

 So, that's the plan.  As always, I'm looking for teachers, people who want to do these things together, and new ideas, so please let me know if you're interested in any of these things.   Here's to a 2011 filled with all kinds of great challenges!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Some Superlatives (and Very Big Thank-you's) from 2010

One of my sister Katrinka's and brother in law Brian's many talents is that they are  phenomenal gift-givers.  Unlike me, they can shop with great focus and endurance, are highly imaginative, and  are always on the lookout for the perfect gift for specific people.  This year, though, they outdid themselves with their gift to me, which was themed on the 52 New Things.  It was a four part gift -- 52 individually-counted seeds to represent the many seeds I've planted in my own life with new activities; a necklace and bracelet made with 52 and 12 beads respectively, to represent last year and this year's new things; a $52 dollar gift certificate to the Outdoor Gear Exchange to further my rock climbing aspirations; and finally two framed collages with four collections featuring a photo from every one of last year's 52 New Things.  It is so fun to look at the collages and see reminders of all 52 activities all at once.
Wearing my 52-bead necklace, Tig and I talked about all the 52 adventures in the collages Katrinka and Brian made for me

Looking at the collages also reminds me of the last list I wanted to make to close out 2010 and get ready for 2011-- a thank you list to some of the many people who figured prominently in last year's project.  There were so many people who helped in so many ways that listing them all would make for an incredibly long post, so I've decided to make a list of superlatives instead and single out a few of the people from the many to whom I owe big debts of gratitude. 

So here is my list of "most's" from 2010:

Most helpful in the beginning: besides Leah and Siham, who helped come up with the idea in the first place, Matthew sent a list of possibilities,(as did Henry, Madison, Alexsis, Donna and Connor S.) and the idea of learning "I love you" in 52 languages.  Pat and Kathy generated all kinds of ideas at last year's Wigilia dinner and Pat sent me a list of translations for dozens of languages when I got stuck.  Cliff and Nicole invited me to Nepal, making my first trip possible, and Manish gave me my first in-person language translations. And very significantly, Julia showed me how to blog so I could get started.
Cliff, Nicole and Jai during a bit of souvenir shopping in Katmandu

Most supportive posters: Anyone who has ever kept a blog (or written anything for broader distribution) knows that feedback is the thing that writers crave.  I am so grateful to everyone who posted comments throughout the year, and especially to Siham and Lilly, who consistently checked in and offered their thoughts. Leah, Jamila and her younger sister Joy-Anne also regularly participated when they were in Burlington, and via posting when they weren't.
Although we haven't figured out a way to do a new thing together yet, my long-time friend Lilly has been a huge supporter all year long.  Here she is with her amazingly cute kids, Eli and Sophia.

Most spontaneous involvementChris came into the list fairly late in the process.  But on our first date we wound up doing yet another memorable Camel's Hump hike (memorable not least because we started it at 2:30 am!).  So, I wasn't surprised when he took a look at the list of what remained and offered to do the 24 hours without sleeping in New York City together as well. He's part of the reason that 2011 is going to need to be the Year of the Challenge, because his form of hiking and outdoors activities fall squarely into that category, and I've asked him to lead on some of them (like Hell Brook Trail) for the 2011 list.
Chris in another spontaneous activity -- dropping by to meet my niece Tigist and be part of her third birthday celebration during her October visit

Furthest travel to participateKatrinka and Brian came all the way from Tacoma to be part of the final Camel's Hump hike. Jamila came from Oxford to learn to change a car tire and set up a room in my place where I could display photos and souvenirs from my 52 things travel. And Angela flew from Twin Falls, Idaho to spend the weekend together in New York City when I went there to skate at Rockefeller Center.
Katrinka and Brian back at the trailhead after our October Camel's Hump hike

Most frequent instructors: Three people, all students or former students, showed up on the blog for multiple appearances as my teacher. Dan S. gave me lessons on cross country skiing, skate skiing, and rock climbing, inside and out. Nigel also gave me a skate skiing lesson, and taught me to change both a car and a bike tire.  And Josh H. taught me snow shoeing, rock climbing and pesto making.  All of them are great teachers, and taught me new things about both the specific activities we did together and the art of teaching.
Two of the greatest instructors the Saint Michael's College Wilderness Program ever produced -- to my great advantage -- Dan and Josh on the day they took me on my first climb outside.

Superathlete (and student) Nigel, the day he took me skate skiing.  Little did he know he'd be roped into doing bike and car tire changing lessons as well.
Most frequent  participants: I am so grateful to so many people for their suggestions, lessons and involvement.  But four in particular stand out for having been willing to do so many things on the list together.  They are Paul, Josh H., and of course, Leah and Siham

My colleague Paul started out teasing me a lot about my list, but pretty soon he started seeing it as a chance to do things he'd always wanted to try, knowing that he'd have a willing accomplice in me.  We've done some things that didn't make the list, like trying new classes at the Y together, and attending our first ice hockey game at Saint Mike's. We went to Montreal to see professional tennis and try poutine together, went to my first (and probably last) car race at Thunder Road, and tried out the roller derby. In 2011 we're going to, among other things, work on snow boarding, since we both tried it for the first time last year.
At the Roger's cup in Montreal Paul introduced me to that oh-so-tasty artery clogger from our neighbors to the North, poutine.

Josh not only gave me the three lessons mentioned above, he also took part in many of the other activities.  He is on the MDG book team, took part in the Washington DC trip, led our Saint Mike's group into the frigid waters of the Penguin Plunge, did the summer (night-time) Camel's Hump hike, tried paddle boarding together, and went rock climbing with me at the SMC wall, Petra Cliffs gym and my first climb outside at Bolton.
Josh, the renaissance student. He had offered to open up the SMC climbing wall for me to do a  lesson, but first rode his bike back from downtown Church Street from his internship in Senator Sander's offce and did the climbing with me in his office clothes.

Though it was a joint effort, Leah was the one who enlarged the idea of 2010 as a year of travel to 2010 as a year of new things.  She did the trips to Bar Harbor and Quebec City, the Rokeby Museum, suggested many of the things that made it onto my final list, and is a big part of the MDG book project.  Probably more than anyone else, Leah is always thinking outside the box for new things to really challenge us. She's going to be just as involved in 2011, starting with the trip to Alaska. And incredibly, though Leah was a star rock climbing instructor in the Saint Mike's Wilderness Program when she was a student, we still need to go climbing together.
Leah going through her list  near the top of Cadillac Mountain in Bar Harbor in February

Finally, Siham is the person who was the most involved in the activities on this list.  She was also part of the trips to Bar Harbor and Quebec City, but she also travelled with Connor and I to Jordan and Jerusalem (and translated Arabic brilliantly for us the whole while) and made our adventure at Petra possible. Besides that, she was on the "support team" for the Penguin Plunge, did the summer Camel's Hump hike, went hot air ballooning, and constantly offered ideas and comments on and off-line throughout the year.
Siham and Connor taking a  breather during our fabulous trip to Petra

I remember when I started the project of 52 New Things a little more than a year ago, a number of people wrote and suggested that I might want to scale it back.  It was too ambitious, they thought, and I'd probably just give it up after a few months.  What they didn't know (nor did I) was that the key to trying 52 new activities, places and adventures in a single year is to have a phenomenal set of family and friends, students and former students.  They are the ones that made it possible, and more importantly made every single experience great fun and special in its own way.  Something I didn't know till I did this is that trying new things can also create and reinforce our own personal communities, and remind us of the unique and wonderful talents and qualities of the people in our lives.  To everyone who was a part of the last year's project -- the people I mentioned here and the people I didn't--  I am grateful, and hope you will join me in creating and meeting the new challenges of 2011's list.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Another Wigilia Celebration

One of my earliest posts on this blog was the one that I did almost exactly a year ago, when I wrote about celebrating Wigilia in Tacoma. I am thrilled that I got to come back for this year's celebration, and thought I'd do an actual recounting of what, exactly, a Wigilia is like -- at least, as it is celebrated by Siplons and Mannellys (my family) who learned it from our good friends, the Szuberts (the family of my closest  childhood friend, Teesie) .  Wigilia is an Eastern European Christmas Eve dinner, with a large number of dishes, heavy on the fish.  As I noted last year, our families have done modifications over the years, such as getting rid of an aspic dish that everyone passed around without actually touching, and substituting family specialties for the dessert course. But, these modifications notwithstanding, this is a dinner loaded with tradition, so I thought I'd do a post showing all the courses as they unfolded throughout the evening.

This was a smaller Wigilia than the first one I attended in fifth grade, which had included six Szuberts and six Siplons, and expanded even more over the years to encompass growing families and other family friends. Our 2010 celebration consisted of Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, Brian's dad and stepmom, Pat and Kathy, and me.

Everyone except Brian sitting down to dinner -- Katrinka, Kathy, Pat, Tigist and me --the two other 'regulars', Dave and Pat, were out due to illness

Before the dinner can begin, the first tradition to be observed is that the youngest child has to find the first star in the sky.  That's the sign that the Three Wise Men are on their way to see the Baby Jesus. 

Tigist, wearing her new Tiana princess dress from Grandma Kaye, looking for the first star in the sky

The table set for Wigilia -- there is an extra place for the Baby Jesus, but it is Tupperware rather than the special china the rest of us used because that's a tradition that Marita, one of the Szubert girls, started when she was in elementary school.
Once the first star has been located, the dinner can officially begin.  The first course starts off, as do all the others, with a vodka toast. My niece, Tigist, was born in Ethiopia, and when Katrinka and Brian went there to adopt her they bought a set of Ethiopian cups specifically for Wigilia, and we now use them for the vodka toast. 

A new(ish) tradition -- Ethiopian cups for the toasts at the beginning of each course

Brian offering the first toast of the night
The first course is a kind of greeting. Everyone is given a piece of bread that looks like a communion wafer and breaks it into even smaller pieces.  These are exchanged with everyone else at the dinner, with messages of peace and thanksgiving and good wishes for the coming year.

Next comes pickled herring, for luck.  The whole time I was growing up, I avoided it because I thought it looked disgusting, but when I tried it, I discovered I actually liked it.

News flash -- turns out that pickled herring tastes much better than it looks
The next course is canapes, which everyone loves, because there's something for everyone.  We use tiny loaves of rye bread and cream cheese for the base.

Lots of salty treats -- lox, anchovies, smoked oysters and caviar

In keeping with her princess garb, Tig went straight for the caviar ("raspberries") and picked them off as many pieces of bread as she could get away with.

The next course is a new one this year.  Brian had gone on-line doing some Wigilia research and discovered that many Wigilia traditions include a cheese course.  Given the fact that I am a Vermonter and consider cheese as pretty much it's own (the best) food group, it made sense that we add it as well. In the picture you can see Vermont's other contribution to the dinner -- Vermont Vodka, which my friend and colleague, Mike turned us onto when we were eating at his restaurant, Claire's, during Katrinka, Brian and Tig's last visit to Vermont

The cheese course is followed by the one I thought was most exotic when I was a kid -- borscht and ushkas (mouse ears).  The ushkas are mushroom dumplings that we used to go over to the Szuberts to help make in advance the day before Wigilia. In the picture below, Brian and I are using a shortcut we learned long ago - won ton wrappers for the ushka dough.

The best course of the night, at least as far as we were concerned when we were kids, was the pierogi (potato dumplings).  We ate them with copious amounts of sour cream. 
Lots of butter is the key to the perfectly-fried pierogi

Last but not least is the dessert course.  Over the years this has been the most free-floating and I can remember walnut tortes, cherry cheesecake and turtle brownies at various times and places  The last few years, Tacoma Wigilias have featured a delicious apricot tart.

Our friend Kelly shared the recipe for apricot tart with my sister some years ago, and it has become another Wigilia tradition
So there you have it.  Wigilia, at least as it is practiced by one family in Tacoma, Washington.  Seven courses (the bread exchange, pickled herring, canapes, cheese, borscht and ushkas, pierogis and dessert), all preceded with a vodka toast for each one.  But the most important components, at least in my opinion, are the memories that have stacked up over the years, and the associations I have with my family and friends in this celebration I've been doing since I was in the fifth grade.  The year 2010, the Year of New Things, has been a reinforcement of the lessons of Wigilia; what matters about Christmas, like what matters to me about life, is not things. It's experiences and relationships, which are what Wigilia (to me anyway) is all about.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Serendipity 13. Part II. Inventing Christmas Cookies with Tigist

So, the rest of the world may be sick of my stories of Christmas cookies, but this year I am squeezing every moment I can out of the season's baking spree.  Now that I'm in Tacoma with my sister and brother in law Katrinka and Brian, and three year old niece, Tigist, we're getting ready for another Wigilia celebration tonight.  But yesterday (and this morning) was Cookie Time, and Tigist proved yet again that she is going to take after her aunt in some big ways.  Besides being left-handed, she is a born baker, just like Auntie Trish.  And she got into the spirit of the season by adding her twist to one of the cookies that I invented in Burlington this year.  Tigist is almost as big a fan of my friend Siham as I am (she even named one of dolls after her), and so it was probably predictable that she'd pick Siham Surprises as the cookies to which she needed to add her own signature addition.    Here they are below:
Peanut butter blossoms and Siham Surprises Tigist's way -- she insisted that they had to be purple and pink.
Tigist is the do-it-yourself phase of her childhood, and so she was pretty insistent in soloing a lot of different parts of the operation -- from unwrapping hershey kisses (pretty easy) to cutting out Lemon Driskies (a little tougher, but she caught on quickly) to icing Chris Crinkles all by herself (definitely the messiest of the operations).
Unwrapping hershey kisses -- easy parcheesi, Auntie Trish!

Submitting to an extremely brief Chris Crinkle frosting tutorial before insisting on going it alone

Frosting Tig-style: lots on the cookies, and plenty of snacking of it along the way

Rolling and cutting out Lemon Driskies -- We both roll but only Tig can cut them out
After a solid morning's work rolling, decorating and baking (and eating lots of frosting in between) Tig went down for a nap and the grown-ups need to turn their attention to Wigilia prep.  Time to make some Ushkas, and tomorrow, will do another post on Wigiila in Tacoma.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Serendipity 13. A New Twist on an Old Activity: Inventing Cookies

Although I am a very terrible shopper (just ask my sister Katrinka), there are two parts of the holiday season that I absolutely love.  One is having the chance to celebrate Wigilia with family and/or friends, which I'll be doing once again this year in Tacoma next week.  The other is baking Christmas cookies.  And I have to confess that, after a year of being an absolute beginner of so many things, it was fun to actually do an activity where I feel like I know what I'm doing.  But the spirit of 52 New Things seems to have taken on a life of its own in everything I do, and this year, it inspired me to branch out a bit and try to invent (or maybe that's a bit much, and I should say modify) some new recipes. 

Something old and something new -- peanut butter blossoms and Lemon Driskies
So, this season my plates have three new cookies, all created out of standard recipes I got from somewhere else.  The first two came from a desire to add a new form of cookie to my repertoire this year -- shortbread.  Although, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am fond of soft, doughy cookies, some of my nearest and dearest, namely Chris and Lilly, prefer cookies that are richer and drier -- hence the need to learn to make shortbread.  So, I tried a classic shortbread recipe, but it felt slightly boring to me, and I decided to jazz it up a little and make it lemon.  I added lemon peel to the dough, and then thought I'd like to do a lemon glaze, but wasn't sure if the glaze was too much.  I gave an experimental half glazed/half plain sample cookie to Drisk, and asked for his opinion.  He suggested keeping it half-glazed, and a new cookie was born.  I named it -- in his honor -- the Lemon Drisky.
Here's Drisk making tidy rows of his namesake cookie

Inspired by the Driskies, I decided to keep experimenting, and tried almond as well.  They have almond extract and chopped almonds in them, and an almond glaze on top.  After sampling the 11 varieties of cookies I made this year, Chris decided those were his favorite.  In his honor, they are now Almond Bennetts. (Chris actually wound up doing very well in my frenzy of cookie naming, because he also recently suggested that his second favorite type, heretofore known to my friends and family who eat them as Molasses Crinkles, should get a new name as well, at least at Christmastime.  They have become Chris Crinkles, which I had to agree was a highly appropriate name)
Chris showing off the two cookies with names he inspired-- Almond Bennetts and Chris Crinkles

Finally, yesterday, in an effort to break up the grading that has taken over my life, I decided to take an intermission and bake off some doughs that were still hanging out in the fridge.  I used up all the peanut butter cookie dough I had making peanut butter blossoms, but wound up with some extra chocolate kisses, as well as some dough that I use for making jam thumbprints.  So, I did the logical experiment and wrapped some dough around the kisses, and the result looks a lot like the kind of sweet dumpling you'd find at a Chinese bakery (which you may recall from the post on 24 hours without sleeping in New York City is my idea of heaven).  When she was up helping with the biggest round of baking last weekend, Siham had been wondering about the Lemon Driskies and how one got in on the cookie naming.  So, today she became part of the trilogy when I named the day's experiment after her.  They are Siham Surprises.

Siham learning the fine art of rolling peanut butter blossoms
I'm pretty sure that if the world's human rights abuses went away tomorrow, and it was time for me to roll up my activist agenda and tuck it away, I'd open a bakery and invent cookies (and continuously repeat the better inventions) all day long.  That's probably not going to happen any time soon, so for now, it's only in the month of December that I go a little crazy baking cookies.  But do let me know if you want the recipes for Lemon Driskies, Almond Bennetts or Siham Surprises -- or if you're in Burlington, stop by and try one!

'Tis the season...for cookie invention -- Siham Surprises, Lemon Driskies and Almond Bennetts

Friday, December 17, 2010

Two Top Ten Lists from 2010, the Year of 52 New Things

I got some frustrating news yesterday.  I've been having some health issues and after yesterday's appointment the doctor told me no aerobic exercise or activities where I could potentially fall for the next three weeks.  That means that the ice climbing adventure I was supposed to go on today is off, as is my upcoming rock climbing adventure with Tigist and my first ski trip of the season and my ice skating plans.  Bummer.  But, as my sister Katrinka pointed out, it's all about "re-framing" so now I'm trying to think about all the activities I've wanted to get caught up on while I'm confined to walking and yoga as my only forms of physical activity.  I've still got plenty of grading to keep me busy, and it's also a nice opportunity for reflection I've wanted to do about the last year of new things, which is what this post seeks to begin.

Even before I began the year of 52 New Things I was a list-maker and that tendency has only gotten stronger through this exercise.  So, when I was thinking about the year that just was, of course I started thinking in lists and I decided to create three.  Two of them will be in this post, and then I'll do a second post with the third. One list is my own personal top ten -- people always ask me what's been my favorite thing to come out of the year, so I've decided to think of ten favorites.  Some are actual new things, and others are results of what's happened.  The other list is more of a curiosity factor -- the most popular postings  The blog program lets you track how many times a page has been viewed over the last six months, which is not quite the same as all time, but I thought would offer an interesting perspective in what other people have thought was interesting.  And finally, I wanted to do a Hall of Fame list to name the people who have been most active in this project in the last year.  Originally, I planned to put this in third list in this post, but once I started looking back and compiling who had done what I realized it's going to be a bit time-consuming, and therefore will put it up separately.

Top Ten According to Others
The most popular postings was easiest to compile because it's a straightforward matter of pulling it off the blog statistics.  Of course, postings that have been up longer have the advantage of more time to potentially be seen, but interestingly, it doesn't seem to matter much. In fact, the most popular new thing, in terms of page visits, is also the most recent -- 52. get a tattoo.  Another interesting thing is that the two most popular posts aren't actually new things at all, but rather Serendipity Posts.  So, here, in reverse order of popularity, are the ten most popular posts among blog visitors from the last six months:

10. 30. Visit Jordan, Happy Hour, Part II (July 1, 2010)
9.   39. Visit Sweden (August 9, 2010)
8.   32.  Give a Talk in Uganda (July 9, 2010)
7.   29.  Try Glassblowing (June 14, 2010)
6.   Serendipity 11.  A Most Unusual Birthday Celebration (October 27, 2010)
5.   List Update: So Much to Do, So Little Time (June 1, 2010)
4.  34.  See a Band at Nectar's and Eat at Pizza on Earth (July 15, 2010)
3.  52.  Get a Tattoo (December 11, 2010)
2.  Serendipity 1.  See a Sunrise over the Highest Mountain on Earth (January 8, 2010)
1.  Serendipity 7.  Start a Book During Alumni Weekend (September 20, 2010)

My Own Top Ten

At first I didn't want to try to make my own list, because it felt like I was being dismissive of everything I didn't put on it.  But I've reconsidered that.  Every single thing that became the subject of a post was memorable in its own way, and I think it's okay to single out a few things that particularly stand out for me when I review 2010.

So, here's my own personal top ten list:

10.  Blogging.  I entered this project thinking that blogging was a strange and mysterious thing, and now, a little more than a year later, I've discovered I love it.  I even love taking pictures for it -- another activity I used to avoid like the plague.  Many thanks to Julia for helping me get started.
9.    Seeing a New Side of Old Places.  New York City is a case in point.  I love going to New York anyway, but between trip skating at Rockefeller Center, doing a day of Broadway shows with Angela, and then later in the same year, having the 24 hours without sleep with Chris and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge together, all really drove home the point that a place you've visited many times can have all kinds of new facets and experiences waiting to be discovered.

I'd been to New York City lots of times, but it never occurred to me that the Brooklyn Bridge on foot is the way to see it, till Halloween 2010
 8.    Winter Sports. Yet another of the many gifts of this project is that it has resolved my long-standing conflict with Vermont winters.  I never knew that it could actually be fun to be outside in the cold  But thanks to Dan S, Nigel, Josh, Connor, Ryan, Dave, Drisk and a host of other teachers and friends, now I'm actually excited for the snow and the chance to get on skis, crampons or various other winter equipment.

Proof of my new found love of winter -- smiling before diving in at the Penguin Plunge in February
7.     The MDG Book Project.  There is no way I would have thought this was possible a year ago.  But after so many new things and great experiences with past and current students, it just seemed like a natural extension.  It's such an exciting thing to be able to put together a Dream Team of past and current students who all spend lots of their time and brain power thinking about development questions.  Their energy, commitment and imagination are infectious and I think this is my favorite academic project on which I've ever collaborated.
6.    Nepal.  This was my first international trip in the year of new things, and it was completely unforgettable.  I made great new friends (Manish, Jane and Kirk), renewed wonderful existing friendships with Cliff, Nicole and Jai and saw some of the most amazing and beautiful things I can imagine.  This trip cemented for me the fact that life is about being open to opportunities, even when you're not sure if you're ready yet.
5.    Camel's Hump  I feel like Camel's Hump, that quintessential Vermont peak, became a huge part of my year.  Hiking it in all four seasons was such a fabulous way to experience a state that I love.  Plus, there were so many people who did the hikes with me -- the four I "counted" and more that I didn't.  I got to go in all kinds of weather, at all times of day (I did not one but two dark-to-dawn hikes -- first with Siham, Josh and Ali and then with Chris), and with all kinds of people (including Alex, Ali, Brian, Bridgit, Chris, Conor D, Gary, Josh, Katrinka (who, with Brian, came all the way from Washington State to do it), Ryan, Siham, and Will) , and I thoroughly loved each hike I took.
4.    A Whole New Type of Friendship.  The process of doing new things all the time changed my life in ways I didn't expect. One of the most profound changes is that it opened me up to all kinds of new friendships based on shared experiences.  I learned that some people I've known for years, like my colleague Paul, have a sense of adventure that I never knew about.  I learned that others, like my high school friend Angela and my graduate school friend, Lilly, were brimming with ideas that they could share from a distance. I learned that many of my students and former students have tons of talents that they are perfectly willing to share, and I learned that other people (even Rhodes Scholars like my former student, Jamila) are as intimidated as me by ordinary things, like learning to change a car tire. I'm ending the year with a huge wealth of friendships -- some new, some deepened -- courtesy of the many shared experiences catalogued in this blog.
3.    Hanging out with Leah and Siham.  From the night in October, 2009 that the idea of this project was born, Leah, Siham and I embarked on an adventure together.  We've climbed mountains with closed roads in the dead of winter and strolled through local sites in the heat of summer.  We've collectively burned lists of bad things and drawn up new lists of great aspirations. We've taken numerous trips together over the last year, and have plans for more far-flung ones in the year ahead.  When I think of my friendships with the two of them and the list of new things, it's a chicken and egg dynamic, because there's no doubt that our friendship bolstered the list, but the list also furthered our friendship.

Siham and Leah on one of the year's adventures -- this time in Quebec City
 2.    Rock climbing.  No one has been more surprised than me at how much I have liked this activity.  As I've noted elsewhere, it's not because I'm good at it (I'm not), or because it's easy (it's not)  or because it's a craze sweeping the nation (I think it's pretty obscure).  I think it has lots to do with how well it fits with thoughts that have been rolling around a lot in my head over the last year -- about challenges and fears and the processes we use (or run away from) in facing them both.  I also have been tremendously fortunate in having had marvelous instructors -- Cliff, Nicole, Conor D., Josh, Dan S., Amanda and Randall are all on my A-list forever -- and ultra-enthusiastic fellow newbies.  I've got tons to do in seeking to get better, so I'm hoping that will be one of the things I concentrate on in 2011, the Year of the Challenge, and that lots of friends will decide to do this one with me.
1.   Petra adventure in Jordan. I love to travel, and to me, our adventure in Petra epitomized absolutely everything that I love about travel.  I knew that the physical site of Petra would be amazing, but that was just one aspect of the experience.  On rare occasions (at least in my experience) everyone on a trip will be on the same wavelength -- interested in the same level of exploration and newness -- and that's what happened with Connor S., Siham and I.  At the same time, we had the great good fortune of being hosted by some of the warmest and most hospitable people I've ever met in Amman (with Khaled, the Omrans and Inas at the top of that list) and then again in a tea shop at the top of the Petra site, when we had yet more incredible luck in being befriended by our Beduoin hosts, Khaled and Ibrahim.  The night we spent in a cave in the desert with them ranks for all three of us as an adventure of a lifetime.  Whether it ever gets topped or not is not the point: the fact that it happened was a reminder and confirmation to the three of us that the world really is our oyster, if only we are willing to take a leap of faith and stretch as far out of our comfort zone as we're invited by others.

Ibrahim trying to teach me to dance by the light of the cave fire and the music of the truck during our cave camp-out
Khaled taking a break while leading us out of Petra into the desert

Khaled cooking us dinner at the cave

So, there are my two top ten lists for 2010.  What a great reminder of all that life has to offer.  Or, in the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Call it chance or call it fate.  Either one is cause to celebrate.  But the question begs, why would you wait?  Don't be late for your life."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's Next? 2011, the Year of the Challenge

When I decided that 2010 would be the Year of New Things it was because I had the germ of an idea (travel) and my friends Leah and Siham helped shape it into something much more ambitious and all-encompassing (52 New Things).  Since that decision in late fall of 2009, we've gotten together at least every couple of months (Siham lives in Boston, and Leah in New Bedford) to do something on all of our lists and think about what else we want to do.  This last weekend Siham and Leah were up to celebrate my birthday and the fact that I completed 52 New Things in a 52 weeks. I should have known they would, once again, take the germ of an idea (keep going) and help me think of it in a more ambitious way.  By the end of the weekend we were clear that 2011 will be the Year of the Challenge.

By the end of the weekend we also had the coffee table completely covered with Christmas cookies. Of, course I pressed everyone in the condo into service -- here are Drisk and Siham helping out.

All three of us are big believers in signs, and one of the signs came from the things that remained on all three of our lists of new things.  A lot of the stuff that's left is hard, and will require some pretty serious time commitments.  All three of us, for instance, want to learn a new language, and we're still planning our trip to Alaska by container ship in March, which is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane would be.

One of our many signs -- in Quebec City, Siham and Leah spotted a container ship -- a clear harbinger of an upcoming adventure.
But Siham and I had gotten another sign the week before when we were in Washington, DC and got to spend a little time with another friend and former student, Colleen. Colleen has decided that 2011 is the year to run the Burlington City Marathon -- not just her, but Siham and me as well.  Clearly, it was a sign.
Happy smiles -- Colleen had just wrangled a commitment from Siham and me about the marathon, and the gravity of what she had agreed to hadn't hit Siham yet.

So, now I'm in the position I was about a year ago (but this time thanks to Julia I already have a blog from which to write), asking friends and family for suggestions for challenging things for the coming year.  The plan is to try to continue to do new things on a regular basis (hopefully at least once a month), but also pick some things that take a serious commitment in order to improve or become even minimally competent.

Here's what my list is looking like right now:

  • The MDG book.  This one has already been started, obviously, but now we need to spend the next year seeing it through  It's simultaneously the most ambitious and most fun book project I've ever been part of, and it's going to be a front-burner effort in 2011.
  • Run a marathon.  I'm going to try to get Colleen, Siham and I all registered for the Burlington City Marathon (which will be May 21, 2011) before the new year so that we're all committed. 
  • The container ship trip to Alaska.  Still planning to do it over spring break, and need to set up the logistics when I'm in Tacoma at Christmastime.
  • Hike Hell Brook Trail with Chris.  This is the toughest trail up Mt. Mansfield, and full of big rocks which are usually wet. Incredibly, Chris does it on a weekly basis when the weather allows, and I am going to do it with him sometime in the coming year.

    I won't be smiling like this when we do Hell Brook
  • Learn to jump and spin on skates.  This was on my original new things list, but I was overoptimistic.  I was going great guns last winter, but then stopped skating altogether in May.  I need to commit to skating a couple days a week and hopefully doing some more lessons to get back into the game on this one.
  • Do nothing.  Sounds incredibly easy, but when I was preparing to do it (I wound up doing the far easier and more delicious option of going to Chris's mom's for Thanksgiving instead), I discovered it was actually going to be pretty tough.  But I will do it in 2011.
  • Mechanics, once again.  Despite Nigel's excellent tutelage on bike and car tire changing, I feel like I just didn't totally get it.  I think I need to take a full-fledged bike or auto maintenance course to really get a feel for how things work.
  • Skiing. Loved it last winter when Drisk took me, and bought a Bash Badge for Smugglers Notch for this winter so I can work on getting better.
  • Arabic. This language really intimidates me, probably because I don't even know the alphabet for it, and think it looks impossible to read.  But I want to give it a shot to at least learn some basics.

One more weekend Christmas cookie shot, just for the fun of it
It's a very incomplete list and I'm still thinking about what else should go on, so please, feel free to offer thoughts and suggestions.  I'll write the full list and plan sometime around the New Year, and I'm still going to do a post about the year I just finished.  But it's always fun to think about what might be on the horizon.  If anyone is interested in doing any of these challenges (or others you want to suggest) in tandem, please let me know as well.