Friday, January 28, 2011

(String of profanity) Hot Pink Cast

If you have ever met me, you know that my general motto for life is "I can do that myself."  This guy knows how I feel; he also knows that sometimes you just need to be the one to get the job done if you want it done right:
However, I have recently become unable to do a lot of things, and the things I can do take me two or three times longer than they should, and are not done very well.  (And yes, I WILL find a way to insert Packers pictures up until and possibly long after the Super Bowl.)

This is going to break my mind.

I have always been fiercely independent.  Sure, I have no problem asking questions about how to do things, such as at work, but I don't like for people to do things for me.  I like it even less when they have to do things for me.  In collge, I dated this very nice boy, Sean, one Fall.  Over the previous Spring and Summer, we had become very good friends.  We talked almost every day, we took a trip to Canada (hey, that is what we did where I grew up!), and I really liked him.  I especially liked him because we could joke around with each other, and he treated me like a friend--not a "girl."  But when we got back to campus in the Fall, everything changed.  He was super way too nice, smothering even.  He opened every door, did everything for me.  I started to hate him.  On some level I knew that it was his way of showing me that he cared about me, but the majority of my brain was repelled by the whole thing.  A week later I dumped him, citing my impending (in four months) trip to England and fear of long-distance relationships.

Obviously, I know that my "I will do that myself" attitude is not always easy to deal with.  It is not just little things I do, but big stuff as well--life changing decisions and whatnot.  For example: buying a car (twice), deciding to go to grad school far away from home (also twice), stuff like that.  Sometimes, this is not a big deal.  But, some of this stuff is big--and when you share your life with another person, it can be really hard to make things run smoothly.  I also know my attitude makes me really impatient.  When I do ask someone else to do something for me, I expect it done immediately.  This is a cause of much bickering in my house; Matt and I do not share the same concept of time, to the point that quantum physicists could probably publish a theoretical paper about it.  Over the years, I like to imagine that we will work out a system.  For now, it just makes us both a little insane.  As a general rule, I just do the stuff that needs to be done, and if I don't have time for all of it (like the laundry), his stuff gets ignored (which also makes me crazy because then it takes him three weeks to get to it, and the whole time I can see the pile of laundry or papers or whatever.  Ack!)

Deep breath.

Recently, however, I have been saddled with this:

Yes, it IS a hot pink cast that goes from my thumb all the way to my mid-upper arm.  F**king awesome! No, not really.

First of all, I have enough fiberglass on my arm to make a boat (small, yes, but fast).  Second, I can't do many, many things while this is on my arm, because, well, I can't use a number of the very important joints and appendages that only took 45 million years for our species to develop so I guess they are pretty useful, and I am going to need those back.

I have gotten pretty good at the big stuff--I can dress myself, drive my car, and type--that I need to function.  But I can't do any of the things that make me happy. I can shower, but I can't open the shampoo bottles.  I can't do my hair or put on make-up.  (Okay, that is true any day, but it is even worse now, if you can imagine.) I am not allowed to run, because of the weight of the cast.  I can go to the gym, once I figure out how to tie my shoes, which is not looking good.  It is also really hard to eat, because I am not particularly dexterous with my left hand.  I can never get stuff on my fork or spoon.  I love to eat, and this is making it miserable.  Two things will happen:
1.  I will finally lose that last five pounds.
2.  I will freak out, buy a bunch of prepackaged junk meant to be eaten with one hand, and gain 40 pounds.

Hmmm... which sounds more like me?  Exactly.  If you love me, ignore any and all requests for Doritoes, Hostess cakes, Combos, and whatever else I try to get you to feed to me.  Otherwise, after the cast comes off there will be months of posts whining about how I am so fat I can only wear sweatpants and it will be all your fault!

Perhaps the worst thing at this moment is that I cannot clean anything; I can't wash dishes or fold laundry and I am a spaz with the vacuum because I have never done it with my left hand before.  All of this means that I am at the mercy of Matt and his cleaning schedule.  (Sound of mind bending, dangerously close to breaking.) As previously mentioned, this is going to lead nowhere good.  It has not even been a week and there are already dishes in the sink and giant balls of cat hair on the floor.  I am already thinking about staying in a hotel...

At some point in the next few weeks, I am sure I will be able to see the bright side of all this.  I will write a post about all the cool things I have learned how to do with just my left hand.  But for now, in these first days, all I can feel is the helplessness, and it is making me angry and depressed. I feel trapped by this cast, and generally useless at life.  I will not go on at length about this, because I know that many of you are also incredibly independent people (that is why we are friends, otherwise I would have slapped you by now), so you know how I feel.  And thank you for listening, and helping me feel better.

So, maybe, can you just bring me one bag of Doritoes?  Just, you know, to get through these first few days?  Also, I will need you to stay and do some dishes....

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Hops

As you may know, I am  huge fan of super hoppy Indian Pale Ale-style beers.  In fast, as a general rule, I will not order anything else at a bar unless all the IPA taps are out, and then I do so only grudgingly, as if my displeasure can make a keg appear.  Over the years, I have developed a particular affinity for a few particular beers, which are my go-to when out at my go-to bars, like the Irish Village and The Burren.  Typically, I stick to Harpoon's IPA, but I am a sucker for trying micro-brews, and anything that came from VT.

I know a lot of people who share my love of beer, although not necessarily my taste for hops.  Improbably, I am even friends with a few people who dislike IPAs because of the hoppiness; I try not to judge but it is hard.  Most of "those people" tend towards Belgian style whites and unfiltered beers.  Those, to me, taste like death--because they are just 16 (or more) ounces of dead yeast floating around, clouding up your beer.  Again, I try not to judge.  The other beers that are popular among my friends, which I also enjoy, are porters and other dark-malt beers.  Since I hang out at a lot of Irish bars, I have seen an enormous amount of Guinness imbibed over the years, and it has been impossible not to develop a crush on it.

Guinness is a fabulous little brew, isn't it?  It has that dark, malty taste that is almost sweet.  In a pinch it can serve as a whole meal, yet it is surprisingly low in calories.  Every now and then, I do order a Guinness, or I wait until Matt leaves his on the bar, and then I drink half of it while he is gone.  But, the lack of hops always sort of bores me in the end, and I return to my IPA.  Of course, a poorly poured Black & Tan can get you the best of both worlds, but I don't go to places where the bartenders can't properly pour one, so for years I have contented myself with drinking a little bit of my beer, a little bit of Matt, back and forth until he catches on and sits farther away from me. 

And then my life changed. 

About a month ago, I was browsing the specialty beer selection at Dave's in Davis Square, when a bottle caught my eye.  Admittedly, I noticed it because the label said "KK", but it turned out to be divine providence.  KK is brewed by Pretty Things, in Westport, MA.  When I took the beer out of the cooler and read the label, this is what I discovered (and it changed my life):  "Once upon a time, on Friday November 15th, 1901, an Edwardian brewer stepped into a London brewhouse and brewed a beer that confounds expectations many years later.  An ale darker than most Porters that uses more hops than a modern IPA." 

Hold the phone: Porter and IPA in one?  Can I buy this by the case? 

KK turned out to be the single hoppiest beer that I had had in many years, but the dark malt balanced the bitterness perfectly.  At least, I thought so; several of my unhoppy friends just made weird faces and waved me away.  I, however, was in love.  And when you are in love, you want everyone to know about it!  So, I started telling people about it.  In my renditions of this life-altering experience, I made it sound as if this particular love was a one-off; one perfect night but unlikely to happen again because Pretty Things is hard to come by.  I was lamenting this fact to my friend Reid one night at the Burren, and he gave me a funny look and said, "Let's go to the front bar." 

Note: as a general rule, after what Reid showed me that night, I could probably be convinced to follow him over the Himalayan Mountains and through the jungles of the Congo if I knew there would be a bar at the end.

Turns out, Reid knows about two things: beer and Vermont.  And when you put those two things together, it changes everything.  One of my favorite breweries in VT is Otter Creek, and it turns out that Otter Creek brews their own black IPA, called the Alpine Black IPA.  Alpine Black is just one of many Black IPAs that have cropped up in several microbreweries around the country.  Typically, this style of beer has the hoppiness of a traditional IPA but dark roasted, almost caramel-like malt is used instead of the traditional pale malts.  Depending on the brewery, the balance of sweet and bitter varies somewhat.  Otter Creek's blend is a little sweet, while Clown Shoes Brewery's (Ipswitch, MA) black IPA (affectionately called Hoppy Feet) is more bitter.

As a true devotee of hops, I do actually enjoy the Hoppy Feet over the Alpine Black.  I am not going to go into that, however, because it is probably just a foil for the more complex emotions I have about VT and MA in general.  This is only further complicated by the assertion (via the internet,so who knows) that the original black IPA was brewed by Greg Noonan of the VT Pub & Brewery in Burlington.  Should I stay or should I go?  More on this later.

In scrolling through the beer-blogs of the interwebs, it turns out that I am not the only one with strong feelings about black IPAs.  Some people are nearly as infatuated with them as I am while others hesitate to accept them as an innovation, claiming they are neither new nor an IPA.  I am not going to rehash all of these arguments here; I will just note that there is debate about what to call this style of beer, and even some question of whether it is truly its own style.  I really don't care either way, as long as the breweries don't stop making it!  I don't want to go back to my old life of stealing sips of Matt's Guinness between sips of my Harpoon.  I have found my true love, and like any love, it is both bitter and sweet; my life would never be the same without it.   

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fracking Toasters!

Recently, IBM introduced a machine named Watson that was developed, essentially, to trounce human contestants on Jeopardy.  If you have not heard about this, and want to learn more, go here:

Th claim made by Watson's developers is that he is capable of understanding the complexities of human language in the same way that a human brain can--only faster.  He has been developed for Jeopardy because part of the challenge of the game is the ability to parse speech appropriately so you can make sense of things like puns, metaphors, and other linguistic devices that we use when we want to say something without coming right out and saying it.  The challenge for a machine is that understanding such devices requires that you know not only the rules of language but also all the exceptions and every-changing cultural usages of certain terms and phrases.

Watson is not the first attempt at language-learning A.I. nor will he be the last.  But the idea that his developers have written algorithms to approximate how the human brain processes language and uses a schema for decision making to decide how to reply to a statement.  Watson is full of information; when a statement is made on Jeopardy, he searches that store of knowledge, pulling out possible bits that could be applicable.  His algorithms then do further analysis of the chosen data to decide, based on several different variables, what is the best choice for the immediate context.  He then must use a final algorithm to transform that piece of data into an appropriately phrased question. 

All of this raises some very interesting questions about the purpose of developing such language-proficient A.I. machines, as well as some more philosophical questions about the nature of intelligence itself, and the role of language in making us "human."  Personally, I have many questions about how the algorithms have been written to mirror human language use and development--that is sort of my thing.  Language in the brain is something that researchers still do not completely understand; even users of language are not clear on many of the rules and exceptions that they operate under every day.  Furthermore, language is more than responding to a consistent set of parameters, such as the context of Jeopardy.  While Watson has been developed to respond to the stimuli represented by the categories and statements, how is he going to react after the first commercial break when Alex Trebeck stops to have a chat with him, to get to know the contestants, and asks Watson a question about some trivial, mildly embarrassing thing--as he does to everyone else?  Will Watson be able to parse that spontaneous language, for which he will have no way of knowing the context beforehand? 

  On the one hand, it forces some potentially harmful assumptions about how the brain works, and the role of language in everyday life.  Language is a living thing; it changes over time and between specific users.  It is highly context bound.  As a small example, I will mention my friend Tyler.  He is from the South, therefore, he can call me "hon" and "darling" and it doesn't seem inappropriate.  That language fits in that context.  If, on the other hand, pretty much anyone else I know called me either of those things, it would be jarring; I would notice immediately.  Depending on the context, I would have to interpret it as a joke, or an insult, or the crossing of some sort of intimacy boundary.  How can that sort of sensitivity be programmed into a machine?

Clearly, this idea of language and intelligence is something that I could go on about all day, but I have a second point I want to make in this post.  An ethical one.  It seems to me that creating machines that are more and more like humans not something we should be working towards.  Last night, I watched Terminator Salvation, and of course I have seen every other sci-fi interpretation of the post-apocalyptic world we will inhabit after the machines take over, including my personal favorite, BSG.  I have learned two very important things from these shows:  the first is that we cannot be tampering with this sort of technology.  The more we make the machines like us, the more they will be like us, and we want to be in control.  A brief glimpse through human history shows that our main objective is being in charge.  So, we should not be surprised when Watson and his buddies decide they would like to take the reigns of the world for a little while--and never give them back.

The other thing that I have learned, however, is that some machines can, in fact, be trusted. As long as they are hot enough.  Such as this one:

Or this one:

I guess the version you get depends on how the future of the war with the machines plays out, but I can tell you, I am sort of hoping to meet this guy in 2018.  But only if he is programmed with his original Australian accent.

As hot as he is, I am still not comfortable with the idea of A.I.  Yes, I am fascinated by Watson.  Yes, I would love to have a robot that looks like Sam Worthington.  But I still have a lot of questions about the whole thing.  So, this time, I am going to ask that you, my readers, chime in on all this through your comments.  What do you all think: should we fear the machines?

Monday, January 17, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things:

The other day I wrote about how anxious I am about being done with my dissertation, and moving on with my life.  I also wrote about all the stuff I have read and know about in relation to my dissertation.  When I think about those things, I get a little stressed out; I freak out about the amount of work that I have to do in order to actually be done.

Tonight I handed in another draft of my last chapter.  I only have one more chapter to revise, and it is the introduction--the easiest chapter to write by far.  Of course, I will have to give all of the chapters one more look-over when they come back from my adviser, but in the meantime I started thinking about  all the time I am going to have when this is all over.  There are three things that I really love, and I am going to direct all my energy to my favorite things: reading (not for school), running, and eating.

I already have a list of books that I want to read.  The Help, by Kathryn Stockett is supposed to be fantastic, so it is on my short list for sure.  I think that I am actually going to start a book club with a few other ladies, so that I will have some peeps to talk with about it.  (If you want to read it, email me--join my book club!  We are going to get matching shirts!)  It is about a white woman in Mississippi before the Civil Rights movement, and her relationship with several African American women who are maids.  It has been recommended to me by several people, and I am excited to finally have time for it.  I am also planning to reread Ender's Game, a sci-fi classic, and its follow-up, Speaker for the Dead.  My brother gave me the first book several years ago, and I loved it.  Through a conversation about A.I. I was recently inspired to reread it, and its sequel.  I doubt this will end up being part of the book club, but maybe I will just have to start a second, super-nerdy book club with my friend Ben, who has also promised to help me perfect my theory of time travel via a very large pizza (more about that another day).

When I am not reading about anything and everything, I think that I will spend a lot of time running.  I love running.  Not in a "Oh, it's nice to be outside" sort of way, but in a truly sort of obsessive, "Yeah, I will run across Death Valley until they pull me off the course because I am hallucinating" sort of way.  Like the rest of you.  So, more than anything, when I am done with my dissertation, I can't wait to put all this time that I have spent sitting here writing my dissertation towards covering miles and miles of Massachusetts.  I have already committed (at least verbally) to two marathons and an ultra relay race for 2011.  I am sure there will also be a health dose of 5ks and half-marathons mixed in. I also want to take up trail running, just for a change of pace and scenery.  And so that one of these days I can do the Vermont 50.  It is amazing; I cannot sit here in this chair and write for more than 15 minutes straight without having to get up and putter around.  I cannot even sit through a 30 minute TV show without getting up at least three times.  But when I am running, I am there for as long as it takes.  That has to be love, right?

Of course, I can't just read and run all summer.  There is one more thing that I will be sure to make time for: eating.  I love to eat almost as much as I love to read and to run.  Of course, it is not hard to eat while reading, but I am not sure about eating while running.  I know that people do it, but I just can't imagine that I would get the same joy out of sucking on a goo packet as I do from sucking down a basket of cheese fries or a giant ice cream cone.  And that is the kind of eating that I am talking about: the kind where every bite is like a tiny explosion of joy inside your mouth, and you think "This is the best thing that I ever ate."  Obviously, I am still eating now (just as I do make some time for reading and running), but it is not the same.  Right now my diet consists of whatever I can throw together in the shortest amount of time without having to think at all. That depresses me.  Food, for me, should make you happy, not stressed out.  When I am done with school I will once again have the time to cook and to give my food the time and attention it deserves, so that I am truly happy when I am eating it. 

But before I get back to all of my favorite things, I have to finish my work.  My dissertation is about motivation, about working towards a specific goal and managing your behaviors so that you ensure attainment of that goal.  Many days, I loose sight of what it is I am working towards.  But then I just have to look at my book shelf, and my running shoes, and my Kitchen Aide mixer, and I know that it will all be worth it. 

Oh, and you will all have to call me Dr. Kortz and that will be pretty sweet, too.     

Friday, January 14, 2011

Side-effects may include...

Lots of people who run do so to lose weight.  It is, admittedly, a fabulous way to shed unwanted pounds.  But there are so many other wonderful benefits that I have gained from my years of running.  In case you are thinking that it is all about how svelte you can look in a speedo, let me tell you about all the other fabulous things you can get through running:

1.  You will save money.  Yes, that's right!  Running will save you money.  Oh no, not on clothes; you will have to buy a whole second wardrobe for running, plus a second work wardrobe for after you lose all that weight; there are also shoes and iPods and GPS gadgets, heart-rate monitors, fuel belts, gel packs, race entry fees, and PT co-pays.  But you WILL save money on pedicures. You will need all the callouses that build up on your feet to protect you from blisters on long runs.  Furthermore, there is really no point in painting your toenails unless you have all of them (it looks really weird, trust me; better to leave them unpainted). 

2.  You will learn new skills.  The one thing that I have gotten really good at since I started running is spitting.  Not just spitting when you are standing still and leaning over--anyone can do that.  But actual spitting, on the move, without hitting your shoes, face, running partner, or small dog that is "racing" you.  I once believed it was a skill that died long ago, known only to chaw-hocking cowboys of middle America.  But, I learned how to do it like a pro (and, I will admit, still look pretty damn good while doing so, standing on the corner of Mass Ave, waiting to cross the street), and I believe that you can learn how, too.

3.  Increase agility.  Tired of getting the "uh-oh" from the Wii fit when you take the balance test?  When you start running, you will quickly learn to become as agile as a, well, one of those big deer-like things that are so graceful and in all the documentaries about Africa.  Yeah--like that, but without the horns.  Anyway.  Because running is not just about moving forward.  It is also about running over, around, and squeezing between.  Who needs hurdles when there is a world of tethered dogs, tipped over trash cans, 2-foot deep slush puddles, and oblivious carriage-pushers out there, just waiting to be your personal obstacle course?

4.  No more unpleasant cat-box odor.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Running can freshen the cat-box.**  (**Total lie.**)  Okay, well, perhaps a more specific explanation is: you will no longer notice the cat-box.  The system is very simple.  After a long run, immediately strip off all outer layers, and lay them haphazardly over your home's heating elements.  As the radiators do their magic on your sweaty clothes, any odors previously lurking in your house will be eclipsed by the smell of your slowly baking spandex.  Trust me, I have been doing this for years, and not once has my husband complained about the smell of the cat-box.

I hope that this post has opened your eyes to some of the less-well-known benefits of running!  While yes, it will help you lose weight (assuming you run far enough to counter that chicken parm sub you sucked down at lunch time), it has countless other benefits to offer as well--just waiting for you to lace up your shoes and get out there to find them!  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Information Overload

This will be short, but I do want to say it: I know a TON of stuff.  Sort of.

Over the past two days I have been working on my literature review for my dissertation (for those of you lucky enough to never have had the need to write one, it is a giant synthesis of all the research that is out there about a given topic).  In order to write a review of the literature, you have to actually review the literature.  I have spent the last seven years doing just that, and as a result, there is a whole lot of information bouncing around in my brain. 

Here is the problem: my brain does not have a highly developed system for organizing all this information.  Have you ever seen "Dreamcatcher"--the Stephen King movie?  The main character's brain is described/shown as a giant warehouse full of filing cabinets, and Jonesy (the main character) is a master of knowing where each piece of information is stored.  In fact, that is what saves him when he is bodysnatched by an alien.  (There, I just told you the whole movie).  If I were bodysnatched, I would be screwed! 

My brain is more like a tar pit, burping up random pieces of long-ago digested material.  The frustrating part is that I threw everything into that tar pit, I just can't ever get back exactly what I want.  Sometimes what comes to the surface is great--it is a helpful connection about an article I read long ago and it fills in an important missing piece in my work.

Other times, not so much.  Like when my friend Reid gave me a list of things he would look for in a girl and my brain gave me the Pina Colada song.  I mean, I get how those two were connected, but really?  Did I NEED that brain?  No. 

But as I have been going through drawers, writing my bibliography, and revising my lit review it occurs to me just how much stuff I have put in the pit that is my brain over the past few years.  It is overwhelming to think that I am responsible for the storage of all that information.  And a little humbling.  So, I guess I should not get so upset when the system gets a little bogged down and gives me Simpsons quotes instead of citation about metacognitive strategy use.  Because obviously, they both have an "s" so I am sure they are filed next to each other in my mind. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Death Becomes Her

One of the more interesting things that I learned in the woods was that my friend Justin has learned to read Tarot cards.  For those of you who have known me well for some time, you can well imagine that I was completely taken with this.  I have always been enamored of mystical and magical things; I own more than one Ouija board and have had some unexplainable things happen to me (you know, beyond being light as a feather and stiff as a board at every middle school sleep over I ever went to).  So, when Justin told me that he had taken to reading Tarot cards, I immediately asked him to read my cards. 

My reading was fairly simple: after shuffling the deck a few times to imbue it with my energy, I chose three cards and placed them face up.  The first card represented the source of my question; the second card represented where I am at now with that question; the third card represented how I should proceed in my life.  A fourth card, with more specific instructions, was also available should I chose to draw it from the deck.  Apparently, you should approach the deck with a specific question in mind, but the first two times I did not have a particularly well formed question, just a pervasive anxiety (me?!) about my future.  I was hoping to turn over cards that would say things like "run another ANOVA and everything will be clear" or "don't worry, you aren't wasting your life."  Instead--both times--my middle card (the one that represents where I am at now in my life) was this:

The Death Card.  Awesome.

Justin was quick to assure me that the card does not represent physical death, but a time of transformation and change.  Change?  That is right up there on my list of fears, just below spiders and clowns.

Justin (and the internet) went on to explain that the Death Card, particularly when drawn as the middle card, indicates that a person is going through a period of transition, where the old self "dies" and allows the new self to be born.  The first time that I got the card, I thought "coincidence."  The second time, I thought "Damn it, these cards really know me."

And anyone else who knows me knows that this is the card that best represents my life right now.  I have been a student for nearly 25 years, all told.  That is the only "self" I know.  And now I am finally (unless I can find yet another way to avoid it) on the verge of being done with school.  I will have a PhD; what else is there without just completely changing disciplines?  (Believe me, I have thought about it, but Matt has made it pretty clear that he will make sure that no one ever finds my body.)  I will no longer be a student; I will be a totally new me.

But what does that mean?  What the hell am I going to transform into exactly?  What if the new me doesn't like Jason Statham movies or playing 3-Man or The League?  Oh god, what if the new me won't wear my bat wings?  It is too terrifying to think about.

But as afraid of it as I am, I can't stop it from happening.  It is part of the natural cycle; we all must die and be reborn, and live each of those lives to its fullest.

"Having left the tree from where he hung, the Fool moves carefully through a fallow field, head still clearing from visions. The air is cold and wintry, the trees bare. Before him, he sees, rising with the sun, a skeleton in black armor mounted on a white horse. He recognizes it as Death. As it stops before him, he humbly asks, "Have I died?" He feels, in fact, rather empty and desolate. And the Skeleton answers, "Yes, in a way. You sacrificed your old world, your old self. Both are gone, dead." The Fool reflects on that, "How sad." Death acknowledges this with a nod. "Yes, but it is the only way to be reborn. A new Sun is rising, and it is, for you, a time of great transformation." As Death rides away, the Fool can feel the truth in those words. He, too, feels like a skeleton, all that he was stripped away. This, he understands, is how all great transformations start, by stripping things to the bone, and building fresh upon the bare foundations."  (

Friday, January 7, 2011

You're never alone in the woods.

After an afternoon spent wondering if you and your friends are those jackasses who have to pay a $25,000 fine to the mountain service after being rescued off a trail you had no earthly business being on in the first place, there are only two reasonable things to do: eat chili and drink.  So that is what we did.

When we had realized that there could potentially be a moose in the woods around us at the end of our hike, we were all completely freaked out.  If not for the ice, we literally would have sprinted to the car, and then again from the car to our cabin (which was about a 5 minute hike from the road).  Instead, we made plenty of noise, moved as fast as we could, and were greatly relived to be safe inside.  Once we got the woodstove going, Justin started dinner and I uncovered a bottle of rum in one of the cabinets; it had a friendly little note "To the 2011 campers at Ritchie Smith Cabin, From the 2010 campers."

(Important side note: we were not totally surprised to find booze in our cabin.  The cabin is owned by the Dartmouth Outing Club.  There were no less than 4 bottle openers in the drawer, and a stack of shot glasses in the cupboard.  These people are professionals as anyone who went to Dartmouth can attest.)

The most simple things in life seem amazing when you have had a day punctuated by the word "treacherous" and that includes vegetarian chili and a very cold beer.  It was not long before we were laughing at our near-misadventures, including the part where Justin (for no possible reason!) started singing Bon Jovi--which Sam and I immediately got stuck in our heads.  I think that we had even convinced Sam that she had had a good time, all things considered.  But that was when we realized that we were not alone in the woods.

It started with a lone visiter scurrying along the log walls while we lounged in front of the fire.  Aside from a quick "Oh, look up there" from Justin, there was no other signal, no sound even, from our little friend.  We watched, quietly, wondering if he would reappear, but he never did.  The night went on, we had a few more drinks, popped some Jiffy Pop, invented some very creative new blogs, and finally decided that it was time to turn in, as Sam and I had plans to snowboard the next morning at Cannon.

But sleep was not to be.  Because we were not alone; our cabin mates were nocturnal and full of energy in the very warm cabin.

It started innocently enough.  A few pitter-patters here, a quick rustle in the garbage.  And then the cabin was full of life.  Full of small, furry, rodent life.  Honestly, if I had turned on my headlamp and seen them trying to carry the food box away, I would not have been surprised.  Sam--who was the closest to the food box--swears they mounted a coordinated attack, which it surprisingly withstood.  Up in the loft, I was awake most of the night waiting for them to come into my sleeping bag and snuggle with me.  More than once, I know that they ran just past my head.  All night they took turns raiding the garbage bag to seek out unpopped Jiffy Pop kernels.  Finally, I had to whisper into the dark "Shut up, mice."  They ignored me.

The next morning, Sam and I dressed and set out for Cannon.  After a few runs, we came into the lodge for coffee and tissues.  I took off my helmet and hat, and noticed a few red threads.  I poked around at my hat and
Huh.  I was not expecting that.

The bear went over the mountain, to see what she could see.

I survived my three nights in the winter woods, and now that my hands are finally defrosted I can tell you all about it!  I was out in the woods with my two friends: Justin (who is still my friend) and Sam (who I believe will forgive me someday). Overall, it was a good time and there were no spiders--real or imagined.   But, the theme for the weekend was definitely "Huh, I was not expecting that."

For example, I apparently did not make it clear to Sam that by "camping" I meant "no electricity or plumbing."  So, when we got to the cabin (which may have been the word that caused the confusion) and there was an inconveniently located outhouse, I think she was a little surprised.  To be honest, Justin and I have no problem with not showering for days and peeing in the woods.  Perhaps this is just because of where we grew up, and all the time that we spend outdoors now.  Sam, on the other hand, grew up in Baltimore, where there is apparently more than enough indoor plumbing to go round, and no need to ever--ever--change one's clothes in public.  Who knew? 

Unfortunately, that was not the only "surprise" of the week.  On Tuesday we went out for a 7-mile out-and-back hike that took us past two different lakes.  What the trail map failed to mention (or maybe it did--but we could not see it in the very dim light of the cabin) was that the trail was very steep in parts, and followed a lot of running water, so that in winter it was covered in ice!  Hooray!  No, not really.  Justin had the good sense to wear Yak Trax over his hiking books.  Sam and I did not.  While he plowed ahead in a sprint to the top, we slipped and scrabbled and swore over icy patches, boulders (hey--when you are as short as we are, everything is a boulder), and tree roots.  All of this might not have been so bad if Sam had had any idea what to pack.  In the future, I will also include in my emails: don't wear jeans. 

The first real "huh" moment on our hike, however, was when we came to this:

Here, it does not look so bad.  In real life, that icy patch is on a rock about 6 feet high.  When we first encountered it, we had to go down it.  Justin says "How are we going to get down?"  Sam and I thought "How the hell are we going to get back up!"  Turns out, by climbing through the trees like crazy mountain monkeys.  Then we did stuff like this about 50 more times, but I could not be bothered to take pictures of all of it.  You get the idea: it was steep, icy, and somewhere in the range between doable and just plain stupid. 

After much pretending that we were all having a good time, we did finally make it to the top.  I think that it was totally worth it, and I took some pictures to prove it.  And it is a damn good thing that it was worth it, because my fingers froze taking these pictures:

And now perhaps you are wondering: did you take pictures on the way down?  Of course not.  Why, you ask?  Well, that would be because on the way down (which I spent largely on my butt, sliding to make Bear Grylls jealous thank you very much) we totally ran out of daylight.  Huh--guess we should have timed this better!  We did make it most of the way, but we walked the last half mile or so out in the complete darkness.  Which, to be honest, was sort of exciting, and we did all have headlamps (that we put on after Justin slid off the trail into the woods the third time).  But you know what else is in the woods after dark, other than stupid hikers?  Moose!  And you know what else?  They are really freaking big!  We made it the whole way down the mountain, in the dark and snow (oh, did I not mention that it snowed the whole day? It was beautiful but also the reason we ran out of daylight), and we were finally feeling like we would not die in the woods.  The Justin stops and goes "Did you hear that?"  Huh, I was not prepared for that. 

I have never been so happy to get back to a cold, dark, no-plumbing cabin in my whole life. 


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Into the Woods

Tomorrow morning, I am going out into the woods for some winter camping.  In a cabin, of course, nothing crazy.  But I am so excited that I can't sleep.  I won't be alone exactly; there will be two other people with me.  And yet, I feel like I am setting off on an adventure. 

This past June, I did a wilderness skills retreat through a Zen Monastery in the Catskills of NY.  For five days, I lived in a tent, cooked my food over a tiny camp stove (which is one of my ten favorite possessions), and swam instead of taking a shower.  I learned how to tie knots, and to use a compass.  Sort of.  I painted with watercolors, and read about Buddhism.

On the second to last night, we all packed our things and set off into the woods for a solo.  I chose a spot that I thought would be perfect.  I set up my tent, cleared an area to build a fire, gathered wood, and treed my food.  Yes--there are black bears in the Catskills who would have been more than happy to take my trail mix off my hands, and I preferred that they not have to enter my tent to do it. 

The solo did not go the way that I had hoped.  It turned out that I set up my tent under a tree infested (honestly, this is true) with a truly terrifying species of Daddy-Longlegs.  While I understand conceptually that these are harmless insect, not killer mutant spiders, I was unable to make that knowledge outweigh my terror of these spindly, orange beasts.  For the entirety of my day and night in the woods, they mounted a siege against me and all that I owned.  If I put my coffee cup down for 30 seconds to get more wood, they were all over it.  I watched one particularly determined fellow try to climb my Nalgene bottle for the better part of a half hour before he realized that was never going to be able to stick to the smooth plastic sides. 

On the first day, I spent a lot of time sitting inside my tent, watching the woods through a fine mesh screen (which was also assaulted by my little friends).  I did manage to work up the courage to take a short hike through the woods immediately around me, but I did not go far.  Our purpose for the solo was not to go hiking, but to sit and watch and think. 

On the second day, I made myself do just that.  I forced myself out of my tent and into the little clearing that I had made in front of it.  This area had been intended for a fire, which I made briefly.  But, it turns out that I am not particularly interested in fire, so once I had proved to myself that I was capable of starting one, I let it burn out and never relit it.  Instead, I spent the second day of my solo sketching my fire pit and the tiny baby trees that were just pushing up through the earth around it.  As I had cleared the leaves, they were able to get to sunlight for the first time, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.  I, on the other hand, was on high alert for invaders.  They watched me from the leaf litter boundary that I had created when I made my clearing.  A few brave souls dared to investigate further, but I persuaded them otherwise by poking them away with a hawk feather I found on my previous day's hike.  And eventually we found an uneasy peace: them not being sure what I was doing there, and me having no better idea myself.  Eventually, it was time to pack up my things and return to the group. 

I learned a few very important things from that solo experience.  But the thing that I realized most about myself is that I hate to be afraid of things, and yet I am so afraid of so many things.  And many of them, like those Daddy-Longlegs in the woods, are harmless.  At the same time, I failed to be on alert for poison ivy (which I got all over my feet and legs) and ticks (which I found on me later, and eventually discovered that one of them had given me Lyme Disease).  And so I am excited and yet nervous about my return to the woods, six months after that little adventure.  I believe that I will be safe, since there will be no insects about in the middle of winter.  But what will I fail to see the danger in this time?  And what might I miss because, even though I hate that it is true, there are so many things out there that I am afraid of?

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