Thursday, January 20, 2011

2011 New Thing 1. Moonlight Snow Shoe Hike

Last year, when I decided to do 52 New Things, lots of my friends wondered if I'd run out of ideas.  Actually, the converse happened.  The more new things I did, the more additional ideas got generated.  I did a couple of great snow shoe hikes last year, and when I did them it made me want to try doing one at night, which is what I did tonight for the first new thing of 2011.
The crew at the top of Mt. Philo

Once again, I have my students and Saint Michael's College's fabulous Wilderness Program to thank.  When the week's schedule of wilderness programs went out over email, I immediately forwarded to a number of friends and colleagues to see who else was game, and sure enough, Alexsis came through with impressive speed.  She'd never gone up Mt. Philo, and we both thought it was time to change that, so tonight we did.
Bridget and Nelly, our cheerfully unflappable leaders

One of the things I learned from last night's hike is that the Be Prepared motto isn't just for Boy and Girl Scouts.  Faced with some snow shoe problems (a bunch of them had buckles missing, which we didn't notice till we got to the parking lot of Mt. Philo), Nelly, one of our Wilderness leaders, responded with a sense of resourcefulness and dispatch that would have made MacGyver weep with envy.  Using only the string of her compass and the tape in her first aid kit, she managed to get her, Alexsis' and my buckle-deficient snow shoes firmly attached to our boots and off we went.  I had already met Bridget the year before when she was one of the Wilderness Leaders on a snow shoe hike that Ryan and I took up Camel's Hump that was so cold that all the rest of the participants who had signed up bailed the morning we were supposed to go out, so I knew she was impressively intrepid. But last night's hero award definitely went to Nelly for incredible grace under fire.
Nelly and Alexsis doing battle with their buckle-deficient snow shoes and trying to ignore their freezing fingers

On one of my snow shoe hikes last year my friend and student, New Thing Hall of Famer Josh, gave me a piece of advice for winter activities -- you should be dressed so that you're a little cold when you start, because otherwise you'll be peeling layers halfway through.  This proved true once again.  In the parking lot I was cold, halfway up Mt Philo (which is admittedly not a major haul, but still clearly slants in an uphill direction) I was plenty warm.  Thanks to the overshoes that the Wilderness Program kindly provided to go over our hiking boots, for once, even my toes were nice and toasty.
Alexsis and I at the top of Mt. Philo.  I felt particularly good about having twisted Lexi's arm to go when she told me she hadn't been to Mt. Philo before.

If you've never done a snow shoe at night up a trail you've hiked in another season during the day, I recommend it.  It's a whole different experience.  Between the snow reflecting on the trees in the moonlight and the totally different way that the trail looks covered with snow, it gives a whole other perspective on a place that you might feel you already knew.  The same was true at the top.  Looking out at Lake Champlain and all the farms below was really beautiful and a completely different sight than you'd see if the afternoon in the summer or fall.
Love the way the light of the headlamps looked in this picture taken on the trail

In the Works

New Things:  Not quite sure what the next New Thing will be.  It depends on who's up for something new, and what they're interested in, I think. Some of the possibilities on the docket for the next month or so include sled hockey, walking greyhounds at the St Albans rescue, visiting the Snowflake Bentley Museum in Jericho, and trying dog sledding.  Let me know if anyone wants to do one of these, or has some other fun idea.

Challenge 1. Become a better skier/snowboarder.  This one is a lot of fun.  So far I've gone this year to Smugg's with Josh and Sugarbush with Chris.  I'm looking forward to going with Paul to Bolton in the next few weeks when our schedules mesh, Alexsis has offered to go to Smugg's and possibly pull together a group for Jay Peak, and I'm always looking for other people who are up to go.  The one thing I've definitely discovered is that it's not possible to have too much warm weather gear, and I'm still looking for ways to keep my toes warm.  Any suggestions (or offers to ski together), let me know!
Chris and I at Sugarbush last Friday.  My smile is clearly related in part to the fact that I was inside and could once again feel my toes.

Challenge 2.  Become a better cook This one, I must say, is going quite well.  It's just so much fun, plus the possibilities of things to make are pretty much endless, plus there are lots of people willing to do it with me and/or eat the results.  Lilly and I need to start our tandem experiments in Thai and Ethiopian soon (anyone up to come over and try them when I do it?), and I still need to give my new crock pot its inaugural run.  Of all my challenges, this is the one I'm most confident of actually achieving this year.

Challenge 3. Learn to jump and spin on ice skates.  I'm really only putting this one down to note that I have made so little progress on this one.  Chris and I went ice skating two weeks ago and that's the last time I've been in a rink.  Gotta get going on this..anyone up for doing it together?

Challenge 4.  Finish a marathon.  Still plugging away.  Did my first long run last weekend -- nine miles.  That sounds more impressive than it is, though, because the program that I'm on requires you to do a combination of running and walking, making my already-slow pace even slower.  But I figure, given how horribly cold it's been here lately, I'd be hard-pressed to be running at all right now if it weren't for this challenge, so at least that's something.

Challenge 5.  Become a better rock climber.  Still haven't been since the New Year began.  But Amanda is starting Women's Night at the Climbing Wall at SMC on Wednesday nights again, and Claire and Kate have promised to give it a try with me on the first Wednesday in February.  Anyone want to join us?

Challenge 6.  Write a book with students.  This challenge is about to suffer a setback when Drisk heads to Montana for a few months. However, Alexsis, Matt, Amanda and Ben are stepping up to help with logistics on the project, and we have a big in-person meeting coming up the first week in February to get everyone back on track.
One of the many things I'll miss about Drisk is that we  agree on all the crucial aspects of producing this book -- such as the decision that all editorial meetings should be conducted over breakfast.  Here he is with Siham, Leah and I discussing weighty country case study issues at Mirabelle's.
My other challenges, such as learning Arabic, haven't even been started, but I have high hopes that once the semester classes settle into place, I'll find time to incorporate more of the others.

So, that's it's for now.  Still deciding what all the challenges of the year will be, and still looking for people who want to do them together or in tandem long-distance.  Drop a note if you'd like, or if you have other ideas.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Challenge 2. Become a Better Cook

I have a feeling that, of all the challenges I've laid out for this year, this one, becoming a better cook, is going to be the easiest because I have so many friends who are willing to be a part of it in one way or another.  I still have some offers from last year's new things list that I need to take up, such as my friend Dean's promise to take me through the multiple stages of croissant baking.  My uber-supportive friend Lilly not only sent me a crock pot and an Indian cookbook for my birthday this year, she's offered to do some long distance tandem cooking together.  Siham is going to teach me to cook some Moroccan dishes, Chris has promised to eat all my main-dish experiments, even those that turn out less than perfectly, and I have a whole slew of students and former students who want to hone their cooking skills as well, so I have lots of co-conspirators on this one.
Success!  The pretzels pictured here and the calzones we made are both definitely keepers -- let me know if you want to make some sometime

Yesterday evening, in the midst of a snow shower that cancelled lots of evening events but didn't deter her in the slightest, my friend and student, Claire, made good on her long-term plan of trying some new cooking things together.  She's back at Saint Mike's a week early because this is her semester to student teach, and so she brought another friend who's also student teaching, Siobhan, as well. The two of them had left it to me to decide what to make, and so I went with something I love to eat and hence, would love to know how to do myself -- spinach calzones.  Last week when we went skiing Josh and I went to Das Bierhaus afterwards for beer and soft pretzels and I've had pretzels on the brain ever since. So, though I'm not sure Julia Child would approve of pairing pretzels and calzones for dinner, that's what we did.
Claire thought the balls of dough we were making into pretzels looked like mouse ears.

After Claire and Siobhan arrived, we started by making the dough for pretzels, since it needed an hour to rise in the oven. You have to dissolve the yeast in warm water with a little sugar, and we were a bit surprised that between the three of us, we were still not exactly sure what the borderline between "warm" and "hot" is -- and in the world of yeast that's a life and death question.  We made our best call and whipped up some dough the old-fashioned way (i.e. mixing and kneading by hand) and while that was doing its rising, make the calzones. The calzone filling included spinach, three kinds of cheeses, eggs and herbs, and was surprisingly easy to put together.  Siobhan proved that it is possible to roll out calzone dough in a perfect circle, and filling them was kind of fun.  Our one mishap there was learning through trial and error (mostly error) that calzones are hard to seal.

Siobhan and Claire pouring the dissolved yeast into the flour "well".
Once the calzones were in the oven, we went back to the pretzels and rolled and twisted them.  In case you've never made a pretzel, here's the secret.  You dip them in a baking soda bath before putting on the kosher salt.  Apparently, the alkaline water gives them their thin brown crust on the outside when baking, They smell fabulous when they're baking too. 
The secret "pretzelizing" step -- Siobhan dipping the dough in a baking soda bath.

Just after we sat down to eat, Chris, who had been trying his cross country skis on the fresh snow outside, dropped by and then Drisk came home from work.  Of course, we pressed them into service as tasters as well, and we all agreed that it had been quite a fine experiment.  I know I'll definitely be making both pretzels and calzones again in the near future.
Chris, Drisk, Claire and Siobhan.  Both Claire and Siobhan are in their first weeks of student teaching; hearing their stories made me realize how much easier it is to deal with young adults than little kids in a classroom (though the kids definitely produce more funny story material.)

In the Works

Last year when I was doing a new thing a week, I would always finish my blog post with a note about what was coming up in case people wanted to join me or make suggestions.  This year, with 12 challenges and at least a new thing a month, I'm going to try to post in this section how different challenges are going, what next steps are coming, and new things that are on the horizon as well.  Half the fun of last year was doing these activities with other people, so please, if something looks fun or interesting, let me know if you want in on any of it.

Challenge 1. Become a better skier/snowboarder  Assuming it's not too cold, Chris and I are going to a new place (for me anyway) to ski on Friday -- Sugarbush.  Thanks to the generosity of Drisk, who got me skis for Christmas, and Siham, Leah, Katrinka and Brian, who bought me gift certificates to the Outdoor Gear Exchange, I'm just about all outfitted for the rest of the winter.  I have a bash badge for Smuggs and am looking for people who want to go....

Challenge 2.  Become a better cook This one is such a lot of fun. Some things I'm hoping to try in the next month or two include; croissant-making with Dean, making homemade yogurt, learning to make fruit tart, soups and stews (including in the crock pot); fruit tart; Indian curries; and homemade from scratch pierogis.  If any of these sound like fun, or if people have other ideas of things to cook together or in tandem long-distance, let me know!

Challenge 3.  Learn to jump and spin on ice skates This one is still not really off the ground the way I'd like.  Although Chris and I went last week, I haven't been able to get on a regular schedule. Between Leddy Park and Cairns, it is possible to ice skate between 8:30 and 11:15 Monday-Friday, and I need to contact Ali to find out when the Ice Barn has skating as well.  Anyone want to get on a regular schedule with me?

Challenge 4.  Finish a Marathon Took the plunge and registered for a class at the Y that is supposed to help you do exactly that.  After convincing us that we absolutely had to do it, Colleen is now iffy about whether she can come do the Burlington City Marathon.  In the meantime, Siham and I are on our training schedules. Anyone else out there think this is the year for them?

Challenge 5. Become a Better Rock Climber I haven't been at all in the New Year, and really want to get going on that again.  Nicole and I might re institute our once a week night at Petra Climbing Gym and now that rock climber extraordinaire Dan is back in town I'm hoping to go with him soon.  Claire, Kate  and some other students are interested in trying it, so if you'd like to go, write and let me know!

2011 New Thing 1.  I think the first new thing of the year will probably be either sled hockey (maybe this Sunday) or going to the Snowflake Bentley Museum in Jericho.  Any takers?  Also, John wrote and suggested a closer-to-home alternative for dog sledding -- the Vermont based Peace Pups.  I'm looking into it and will post when I get more info.

I think that's pretty much the focus for the next couple of weeks.  Let me know if you want to join in!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

2011 Serendipity 1. Celebrate an 80th Birthday

The man of the hour, my father -- Donald Siplon-- at his 80th birthday party. I find it slightly disconcerting that I have about the same amount of gray hair that he does.
 My parents are the only two people I know who retired from Florida in order to move to Michigan.  But when you consider that my dad was born and raised in Western Michigan, and you can't go ten steps without running into someone to whom I'm closely or distantly related, it starts to make a bit more sense as a retirement destination.  I have to admit that making the winter trip from snowy New England to Florida used to be somewhat more enticing than the same trip to Western Michigan.  But it's not every day that your father reaches his 80th birthday, so it was off to Michigan to join my siblings and the rest of my family for a celebration of this great occasion.

After the party --back row: Brian, Katrinka, Susan, me and Rick; front row: Mom, Dad, Tigist, Emma, Jim, Grace, Daisy, Donna, Alex and Jean

We kids have definitely scattered.  I live in Vermont, my older brother Jim and his family live in North Carolina, my sister Katrinka and her family live in Tacoma, Washington, and youngest sister, Donna and her family are the sole Michigander group among the siblings.  Then there is my "other brother", Jean, or as my sister Katrinka puts it, "Don's oldest son, but not his first".  Jean is French, and joined our family in 1973 in his first visit as a teenage french exchange student when Katrinka, Jim and I were in elementary school (and Donna was not yet born).  He's now a doctor with three kids of his own, and has been back countless times. He has also hosted various family members as well as sending his own kids to stay with members of our family over the years.  He came with his girlfriend Mary from France for the occasion, since, obviously, a family party would not be complete without him.
All my dad's kids back home after the party: me, Katrinka, Donna, Jim and Jean
At the party, each of us got a chance to toast my dad, and tell some stories about him, then we opened the floor for other friends and relatives to do the same.  Finally, my mom and dad both spoke and we had cake and champagne.
My Dad saying a few words after everyone else has had their turn, while my mom and the kids look on

Back at home that night we launched into a round of political debates, since it's not possible for us all to gather without one.   And finally, as people peeled off for bed, my dad told my sister Katrinka and me stories late into the night about his early days in the Navy when he served as a hospital corpsman in New York City, and the tragic fate of some of his closest friends there, who died in the Inchon Invasion in the Korean War.

The next day Jim, Susan, Emma and Grace started the drive back to North Carolina after all of us took a lunch time trip to the resort town of Pentwater and the Brown Bear.  It was cold, but the lunch portions at the Brown Bear were huge, so we felt amply compensated.
Dad and his "non-identical twin" brother, Bob who came from Wyoming.  They were born on the same day, exactly 15 years apart.

Jean and Mary came all the way from France for the party.  Here they're braving the cold in front of Lake Michigan in Pentwater with my dad.
Tomorrow, most of us head back home through the snow to our various corners of the world feeling a little bit luckier for having been able to celebrate a milestone in the life of someone very important to all of us, my dad.  We are all the products of our experiences and the people of our lives.  My mother has always maintained that, of all the children, I am the one who is most like my father.  If that's true, I think I'm pretty lucky. When I was a kid, my dad was the most principled person I knew, and the one most interested in new ideas and perspectives.  He also taught us that the greatest lessons are learned through example as much as lecture, and that there is no substitute for integrity in the way we live our lives. I'd like to think that I learned through his example, and I'm hoping to keep learning from him in the years to come.  Happy 80th birthday, Dad!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Challenge 1: Become a Better Skier and/or Snowboarder

As I noted in my last post of 2010, 2011 is going to be the Year of the Challenge. This means that I am identifying 12 areas that I started in my Year of New Things that I'd like to improve and push to a different or higher level.  I'm also not giving up on New Things, and plan to do (and chronicle) at least one of those each month as well.

As usual, I owe both the inspiration and means to the first step on my first challenge, improving as a skier and snowboarder (both of which I sampled in last year's New Things) to other people.  In this case, those people are two of my former (Drisk) and current (Josh) students and friends.  It all started when Drisk surprised me with a fabulous Christmas/New Year gift--new skis!  Of course, Drisk is the one who gave me a ski lesson last year when I tried out skiing as a new thing, so it made it all even more cool that he has now provided me the means to keep going with skiing as a challenge.

Last year, Drisk took me on my first ski trip ever in Vermont. This year he gave me skis to keep going.

Naturally, I was beyond excited and told Josh about the gift when we met for coffee earlier this week.  He suggested that I should try them out without delay this week, and so today we did.  And in doing so, I took another step to being a real member of the Saint Mike's community by finally, in my twelfth year at the College, going skiing at Smuggler's Notch.  Those outside of the Burlington area may not know this, but one of the many perks of being a student at Saint Michael's College is a free season ski pass to Smugg's.  Obviously, this make the resort, which is about 45 minute's drive from campus, the ski destination of choice for our students.  It's more than a bit crazy that I'd never been, but at least I remedied that today.

Standing above the Saint Michael's College banner outside the lodge-- can't believe it's taken me over a decade to do that, but better late than never

It was a great day to try out my new skis.  It was a Wednesday, and the local public schools have all gone back to class, but the colleges haven't started their semesters, so the college students aren't around.  So, it was quite uncrowded, and although it was pretty cold, and it snowed during parts of the day, thanks to Drisk and Josh, who loaned me goggles and some extra stuff to keep warm, I was in good shape.
Yet another thing to thank Drisk for -- the goggles he loaned me definitely came in handy

In case there are other people associated with Saint Mike's who have yet to ski at Smugg's, here are a few tips:
  • It's a great mountain (actually three mountains) but it really is cold and pretty windy at the top.  Dress warmly, and then add some more layers to that.  You can always take them off later.
  • If you should happen, as I did, to have problems getting your ski boots on, here's something I learned today.  Let them heat for five minutes next to a heater.  Once we did that, I was fine.
  • If you're a newby, don't be afraid to fall.  It's how you get better.  That's something I learned in last year's New Things generally, and I'm still finding it to be true.
  • Don't be afraid to fall, but hope your friends don't feel the need to document it -- .Josh kindly waited till I was back on my feet and moving again before snapping the photo above
  • Go with someone who is better than you.  Josh is an excellent skier (and a great instructor), and the desire to keep up (or at least slow him down less) really helped push me to do better.
  • Josh getting ready for the first run of the day after we had resolved my minor boot crisis
  • Whatever you do, just go.  For years I had lots of excuses -- it's too cold, I'm too old to learn, I don't want my students to see me, it costs too much.  From the top of the mountain all of them seemed pretty silly.  With a little research, everyone can find discounts and ways of making skiing more affordable, and clothes to make it more comfortable.  And drawing on lessons I learned last year, I now know that you're never too old to try things that look interesting and everyone that is doing something had to be a beginner at some point.
So there it is.  Thanks to Drisk and Josh, the new year of challenges has begun, at a place that I should have gone to years ago.  Can't wait to go again!