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, butš 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.


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