Thursday, December 31, 2015

January Report: New Year, Big Plans

First blog post of 2016, and the plan is to do one each month in 2016 as a way to record progress (and hopefully not too many setbacks) and the coming month's goals.

1. Skating. Although it didn't figure into my formal skating goals, in December I did one of my favorite events of the year,  participating in the Leddy Park Arena holiday skating show with some of the friends I've made through the adult skating program there.  Although it only lasted for less than two minutes, it was a ton of fun, and I have to say, I thought our costumes were great.  The performance taught me a valuable lesson, though.  I need to practice a LOT more.  All the moves I thought I had gotten down in practice felt stiff and poorly executed on the day of the performance.  it was fun, but I realized that when you're nervous -- as is inevitable in a test or performance -- you have to fall back on really, really knowing things from having practiced them a whole lot. In December I was pleased because I had gotten my skating up to five days a week, but my plan for January is to get the periods of skating to be longer, with at least two ninety minute sessions in those five days, So, the January goals are: skate at least five days a week (once I'm back in Vermont) with at least two 90 minute sessions in those five days; and focus on the following: the skills of my bronze moves in the field test; the Dutch Waltz; and improving my extremely poor two-footed spin and waltz jump.
These are some of my morning skating buddies at the Leddy rink (Patsy, Mary, Mary, Liz, me and Donna). They've taught me a ton, and inspired me to keep going in both figure skating and ice dancing.

2.  Getting Outside. I did a fair amount of hiking in the fall -- some with the Wilderness Program and some with Jon and other friends.  It's taking a long time for winter to get here this year, but I have an inevitable set of challenges coming my way in January: the Wilderness Program's winter training and leading hitter hikes as a probationary leader.The winter training will happen January 14, 15 and 16 and, weather permitting, will include a day each of snow shoe hiking, ice climbing and mountaineering.  I'm nervous and excited at the same time, and think the February report should be interesting!  In addition, I have high hopes of using the time before school starts and the weekends of January to do some additional winter hiking and cross country skiing, so if anyone else is of a mind to as well, let me know, please.

One of my favorite outdoor adventures from last year was a night time cross country ski with Jon and  our friend Michelle.  Here's hoping for some more opportunities this winter.

3. Rock Climbing.  Between my finger injury and a lot of travel in December, I'm painfully behind on this one.  January will be a month of playing catch-up and the goal is simply to get in a groove of getting to the climbing gym at least twice a week for the month of January.

4. Being Better.  I'm happy to say that my fifty thank you letter project has begun.  First three thank you letters have been written and sent, and I need to send out four more in the month of January to get back on schedule.  The Be Better Book Club is in the process of reading David Brook's The Road to Character.  I haven't decided what my January volunteering event will be, so if someone has an idea, shoot me a message please!

So, that's it.  In a nutshell the plan for the month of January is:

  • Have some hopefully not too scary adventures outside with the Wilderness Program and anyone else who wants to do some marching, gliding or climbing through snow and ice together:
  • Read a make-me-better book, write four letters and spend an afternoon or evening do a good deed;
  • Get back into rock climbing regularly;
  • And skate as much as I possibly can --  looking forward to lots of hours at the rink and hope some friends will join me.
Anyone who's up for doing any of these together, give me a shout.  And feel free to share your New Year's resolutions.  I love reading other peoples' and getting new ideas. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Work in Progress: One Year to Go

I just celebrated my 49th birthday and I can't say that I'm thrilled about it.  Getting older is inevitable but it's not very fun. Joints start to wear out and you start regretting not having worn sunscreen in previous decades, and all kinds of other things like gray hair make their presence known.  But since aging is inevitable, I decided about six months ago to embrace it and embarked on a plan to see how much I could accomplish before I turn fifty. Though I did a remarkably bad job documenting it, I actually did get moving on the plan.  So now that I officially have exactly one year to go, I'm taking a step back, assessing my goals and where I stand with them, and officially re-launching my plan to use the next year of my life to become closer to the person I want to be when I hit fifty.  During the year of 2010 I spent a whole year exploring new things (52 of them, actually), and by the end of it I was more fit, more fun, more well-traveled, had a slew of new friends and a much more positive outlook on life.  This year, instead of dabbling at a bunch of new things, I want to work hard to get to the next level on some of the things I discovered, (or re-discovered), during that year of new things.

By the time I hit fifty I specifically want to be:

1. a better figure skater;
2. a more competent outdoor adventurer;
3. a more skilled rock climber; and
4. a better (more empathic, less reactive, more grateful) human being.

Looking at it, this seems like a strange list.  But one of the few benefits of aging is that you start worrying less and less about what seems correct to someone else, and thinking more and more about what feels right personally.  And for me, these are the things I really want, so they're the ones where I'll put my focus and accountability for the next year.  As with the year of 52, I'll keep a blog, both to keep tabs on how it's going and to invite my family and friends to make their own lists and/or join in on some of the projects going forward.

Here's where each of these goals stand at the moment, and the plan for where I'm going next.

1. Figure skating. When I was a kid we had a pond and skated on it, and I loved it.  A few times as an adult I took some adult group lessons.  But during the year of new things I did a bit more skating and realized that what I really wanted was to not just skate in circles but learn to actually do more.  And now I am.  It's slow, slow going, but it's awesome.  And the more I skate the more I want to skate. This summer I hit my first milestone as a figure skater when I passed my Pre-Bronze Moves in the Field test -- it's basically the test where you show you can skate forwards and backwards, skate on "edges" -- an essential skills for just about everything else, and do a few of the easier one-footed transitions.  It was also the first time I skated all by myself in a rink in front of three judges, which was as nerve-wracking as any grad school exam or defense I'd ever done.

My favorite  skating thing to do is probably spirals like this one.  Now I'm working on doing them on edges (on a curve) and going backwards.

Right now I'm working on three different fronts.  The first is figures -- literally learning to trace the circles of a figure eight in different ways.  It's a lot harder than it looks.  I think of it as moving meditation and on Tuesday mornings I spend a whole hour just repeating the same four-circle pattern over and over until I'm able to do it evenly and follow the tracings exactly. On Wednesdays I have my advanced adult class where I am one of the least-experienced people in the class and struggle to keep up with colleagues, who have been at it longer and are a lot more graceful than me.  And on Fridays I head to Waterbury (about 20 miles away) to work on ice dancing and preparing for my next Moves in the Field test with my very own skating coach, Russ. And I try to skate at least one other day a week.
Such a simple little thing but it took so much work to get there.  "Pass" on my Pre-Bronze Moves in the Field Adult Test.  Now I'm working on the Bronze and the first two ice dances.

Because this is the thing I find the most fun on my list (my boyfriend Jon has actually used the term "obsessed"), it's also probably the one for which I have the clearest picture of what I'd love to try accomplish before my fiftieth birthday. There are basically three ways I can demonstrate improvement as a skater: free style (which includes the jumps and spin stuff); moves in the field (basically all the cool stuff that you see a skater do between the jumps and spins); and ice dance.  So, my goal in the next year is to try to pass the next tests in each of these three areas.  In ice dance there are three "preliminary" (simple, all forward skating pattern) dances I need to pass: the Dutch Waltz, the Canasta Tango and the Rhythm Blues.  In my Moves in the Field, I am now starting to prepare for my Bronze Test, and the final one I'll attempt (if and when I pass the others) is my Pr-Bronze Free Style. So, in a perfect world, before I turn fifty I will have passed all three tests; in a less-perfect world I'll give it my best shot and have gotten a whole lot better from all the practice it's going to take

2. Getting Competent Outside.  This is the area in which I think I've made the most headway largely because of a decision I made in August.  Saint Michael's College, where I teach, happens to have one of the best Wilderness Programs in the country. I discovered just how  great it was in 2010 during the year of 52 New Things when I turned to my students (who happened to be instructors) to introduce me to all manner of outdoor activities from ice and rock climbing to kayaking to hiking. Since that time I've been the Wilderness Program's biggest faculty fan, and have been invited to tag along on some of the training experiences so that by last year I knew enough to be able to be an assistant leader on some of the easier day hikes.  But I was still very intimidated by many of the activities and even some of the equipment.  

So, this year I bit the bullet and formally applied to the program to be trained as a Student Instructor.  I went through the same fall training as the other candidates and was selected to continue on as a Wilderness-Instructor-in-Training with the group of mostly first-years and a few sophomores.  Together we have done our "death march" on Mount Mansfield (where I managed to dislocate a finger and allow our leaders to show off their serious wilderness medicine chops when they reset it in the field). Like the others I was assigned a mentor, senior Meghan Lynch, who taught me to tie knots and pitch tents and use water filters (still not great on that one).  We spent a weekend learning Wilderness First Aid, and lots of other weekend days hiking up mountains and climbing rocks.  I have another semester to go, but if I pass at the end of the year, I will have acquired a whole set of skills I never imagined I'd have, and I have all kinds of plans for using and deepening them this summer.
My fabulous mentor Meghan, teaching me how to pitch this and several other tents.

My Instructor Training Group on our all-day hike on Mount Mansfield.  This picture was taken about an hour before disaster struck and I totally dislocated my fourth right finger.  It was really gory, but alas, I did not have the presence of mind to capture it on film.

3. Rock Climbing. Unfortunately, my commitment to Goal #2 has taken a bit of a toll on Goal #3. If you've never dislocated a finger here are three things to know. First, it looks very grotesque to have part of your finger going at right angles to the rest of the finger; second, it takes a long. long time to heal. and third, your ring finger does a lot more work than you give it credit for,  Take it out of commission and you'll find that out in a hurry, especially if you try to climb rocks while it still won't bend. Still, it is slowly, slowly starting to bend again, and my very patient occupational therapist tells me it will heal eventually, even though the joint may look a little swollen for the rest of my time as a mortal.

Jon, showing off his impromptu climbing skills in Southern Utah during last March's rock climbing and hiking trip.  We're headed there again in March 2016.

This means that rock climbing is staying on the list, and I am hoping to get better in three areas before I hit fifty.  First, I'd like to be climbing at a higher level generally.  Right now 5.8-grade top rope climbs are where I'm at, and it would be great to be solidly in 5.9 range before the year is over.  I also want to get better in setting up anchors and being more competent with gear outdoors.  And finally, I want to work on lead climbing and at least try using trad (traditional) gear once before the year is out.

4.  Becoming a Better Person.  Sure, but how?  Actually I already figured out a path on this one, I just need to be more systematic in doing it.  One part has already been started.  About four months ago I started an on-line Be Better Book Club.  We've read two books so far (Pema Choudron's Start Where You Are and Brene Brown's Rising Strong).  It's time to reinvigorate the club, so if anyone reading this wants in, let me know.  Next up in David Brook's The Road to Character.  Second part is volunteering: at least once a month, with a focus on giving back to the parts of my community I appreciate or have contributed to my own growth and development.  Some of the things on that list include helping out on a trail maintenance day (since I love hiking), or a Crag Vermont work day (to thank the community for creating Bolton climbing area) and being a cheerleader/drink giver at a fun run (and being especially enthusiastic to the slower ranks running, the group in which I always belong).  And finally, I am blatantly ripping off an idea from my friend Ginger.  She told me that when she turned fifty she wrote a list of fifty people who had been important in her life and sent thank you letters to all of them over the yer.  Talk about an exercise in gratitude!  I love it, and I plan to do it.

So, there it.  I have my marching orders, and between now and December 10, 2016 to see how far I get.  Anyone who also wants to work on ice skating; adventuring outdoors; rock climbing; or being a better person is more than welcome.  In 2010 one of the best parts of the year was all the people who taught me new things or explored them together with me.  My plan is to blog at least once a month about how things are going and the plans for the next month. I hope lots of my friends and family will be part of the journey with me.

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.