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The Hizzle of T-Fizzle

Weird dream!

October 15th, 2008

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I often have weird theatrical dreams.  I can’t call them nightmares because I don’t really get freaked out but the recurring theme is like this: I’m at a theater, I’m in a show, and we are warming up for a live performance.  And that’s all I know.  I have no recollection of being at any rehearsals.  I don’t know any lines, blocking or choreo.  I’m not sure what my character is.  In fact, I don’t even know what show I’m in!  I find myself lurking around backstage trying to catch a look at somebody’s script to see if I can get a title of the show.  I try to find a program…maybe I can figure out what my part is.  I casually ask cast members if we can review a scene that I describe very vaguely in the hopes they’ll volunteer a scene, or I’ll ask someone if they can get my back during the show and tell me when to go on stage and nudge me in the right direction.  It’s all really weird.  Never really freaks me out.  Just weird.  Feel free to analyze.

Last night I had a particularly strange variation on this.  I was in Footloose.  Still.  Yes, that Footloose, the one that closed in June.  I didn’t know I was in it, but I was.  Apparently there was a tour or some sort of ongoing engagement to take place later in the year and we were actually supposed to continue rehearsing.  I’m not sure what brought me to the theater, but I happened to be there and I found a rehearsal going on.  Most of the cast was different.  As I asked around I found that most of them left the cast after quarrelling with the production staff and had been replaced.  There was never a huge blowout but one-by-one many of the cast members had their own individual battles and decided to quit.  The director and musical director were different.  In fact the musical director was a guy from my high school.  The choreographer was the same but since he had already taught the cast back in May he was essentially out of the picture.  All of the blocking and choreo had been passed down by word-of-mouth as cast members came and went.

My name was still on the cast list.  On paper, I was still assigned the same collection of small parts.  It seemed that amidst all of the directorial changes and cast turnover, they never bothered to replace me.  Everyone assumed that I had come to rehearsals when they were not there.  The directors had figured that I must have made arrangements with one of their predecessors to take a leave for awhile, but any note indicating that was just lost in the shuffle.  The theater’s executive director had assured the directors that I was very reliable and that they did not need to worry; while no one had any idea when I said I would return to rehearsals, I surely told someone that I would return to rehearsals at some point before we resumed performances and I surely would return when I said I would even though no one could remember when I said I would.  In short, through a very bizarre sequence of events my parts had been held for me and no one ever thought to contact me or look for me.  Like Estragon and Vladimir, the cast and staff went right on rehearsing, faithfully waiting, sincerely believing that if I didn’t come to rehearsal today I would surely come tomorrow.

Except unlike the mysterious Godot, I actually did show up eventually.  Except I had no idea anyone was waiting for me.  Here I had come to the theater on unknown but definitely completely unrelated business and the two or three remaining original cast members perked up their heads and said “Hey, Troy’s here!  We can finally rehearse The Girl Gets Around and Mama Said!”  I was completely confused, but I felt so bad that the beleagured production had actually waited for me for 3 months, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had believed my Footloose contract had been completed.  I just kinda smiled and jumped into the rehearsal.  I made a note to myself to come up with a surreptitious way to figure out just when and where we were going to run this thing.

Man was that a weird one.

A Linux Tale

September 5th, 2008

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I have not uploaded MP3s to my player in over a year.  I have a Rio Karma which at the time of its manufacture was one of the most amazing DAPs available.  It actually still is pretty impressive - 20GB of storage and the ability to play just about any audio format - ogg, mp3, wma, flac, etc.  It even came with a dock that has an ethernet port on it that allows you to stream music from it to a web browser.  I got it for dirt cheap on Overstock around the time Rio quit the DAP business.  A sad sidenote is that I bought it concurrently with a Rio Pearl for X.  I decided not to get the Karma for X becuase I read that there were some reliability issues with the Karma and I didn’t want to get her a dud.  Well the Pearl started flaking out in a few months, the Karma has been fine for years.  Go figure.

One quirk of the Karma: it does not communicate as a normal USB device.  You can’t just plug it into your computer and drag files onto it.  It needs its own driver and you have to use the Rio Music Manager program to load music onto it, because it has its own file system and maintains its own index database (it doesn’t just index the media files).  Rio claimed it to be “linux supported” but what this means is that you can manage it via the web interface which is cumbersome and somewhat slow.  Rio never actually released a linux driver or a linux version of RMM. 

Older non-standard hardware?  No support from the manufacturer?  This has “Linux Disaster” written all over it.  After my Windows box went belly-up, I briefly researched this and determined that someone had actually cooked up a linux driver for the Karma, but it seemed a little sketchy and it’s a safe guess that just about anything of this nature in linux is going to be totally kludgy, not ready for prime time, and that’s assuming it even works at all.  But I was OK because I had a Windows virtual machine and I could just use that when I needed to, and I did occasionally but it was kind of a pain which caused me to stop ripping my CDs and loading my Karma up.

Then I decided to switch to Ubuntu, the relative success of which has been documented on this blog.  I had always intended to get all of this MP3 business working again so that I could rip CDs and populate my Karma, but just hadn’t sat down to work on it.

Actually I did at some point and came up with a solid gripe about Ubuntu - figuring out how to rip CDs to MP3 is bizarre.  I could never get the default ripper or music manager to rip to any thing but Ogg and maybe FLAC.  MP3 support is not enabled by default because its not open source and technically requires a license.  I believed I had enabled all of the correct packages to get it working, but it was never an option in any of the menus.  I ended up installing GRip since I had experience with it and knew that it didn’t care what packages were installed - if you had an encoder and could supply it with a path to it, it would work.  And it did, but it was classic Linux kludge - you put in a CD and it autolaunched one of the programs that could not rip to MP3 and then you had to close that, open GRip and then rip.  A workable solution but annoying enough that it demotivated me from ripping any CDs especially since I had not set up any way to get them on to my Karma anyway.

Then X asked for an MP3 player for her birthday to replace that ne’er-do-well Pearl.  I got her a Sansa, having gotten a general consensus that if you’re not going to spring for an iPod, the Sansas are a good alternative.  But now she has this MP3 player and she wants to put music on it.  I went to show her how to do it.  “Put in the CD.  OK now close this window.  And open that….”  This should not be more than 3 steps tops and I hadn’t even showed her how to transfer the MP3s to her player yet!

I resolved myself to figure out a better way and get Amarok or even the built-in music manager to rip to MP3 and populate her MP3 player.  But somehow I got distracted.  I wanted to figure out how to get new music onto my Karma again!  First I set up a Windows virtual machine again, although I primarily wanted this to rescue some music and photos that had been orphaned on an NTFS partition that linux refused to mount.  I pondered just installing Rio Music Manager on the VM and just using that, but I really wanted to do everything natively in linux if possible.

So I started searching about Karma compatibility and I decided I hadn’t abused myself with a linux challenge in awhile so I was due.  The linux Karma driver still seemed a little kludgy but if it got the job done, I could at least stick to my current crappy ripping process and have a crappy way to populate both MP3 players.  Problem solved even if it’s in a crappy linux way.  I grabbed the driver and went to compile it and, predictably, it failed.  Before I decided to go nuts searching for dependency after dependency, I decided to (duh) see if this was in the official Ubuntu repository, and remarkably it was!  I grabbed the necessary packages, hit “apply” and a few seconds later it reported success.

I plugged in ole’ Karma, and tried to mount it and - classic Linux! - it failed to mount because OMFS is not one of the available file systems (even though I had just installed OMFS support in the previous step).  Cue a few hours of troubleshooting.  Best I can figure is that when you “install” this particular package it downloads the source code to your src directory and reports this as “success” even though it hasn’t actually done anything!  I found a tutorial that tells you to execute some program to build and install the package - failed with the same error when I tried to compile directly from source.  I found another tutorial that claims the repository package is broken (more typical Linux behavior) and recommends downloading the current source code and overwriting the files in the src directory.  Same error.  No luck at all.

Just about to give up, it occurred to me that somehow these other people got it to work.  Maybe the driver had been updated (and broken) since they wrote their tutorials?  Package updates causing epic failure is another typical linux behavior, btw.  I decided to try building the previous version of the driver from source.  I’m sure you can imagine my utter amazement when it actually compiled successfully on the very first try!  All that means is runtime errors are guaranteed, though.

I plugged in the Karma and ran the mount command.  If I was utterly amazed that it compiled, I was completely astounded that it actually mounted successfully and I could browse the cryptic proprietary file system!

The main technical barrier overcome, I just had to figure out how to actually use the accompanying programs to actually add songs to it.  I had a feeling they weren’t pretty.  When I configured it to automatically mount when plugged in, I noticed some typical linux behavior - sometimes it mounts as removable storage (and automatically launches a nautilus session) and sometimes it mounts as an MP3 player (and automatically launches the built-in music manager).  When the latter occurs, it actually appears in the music manager AND it displays all of the music!  Amazing!  Unfortunately, it appears to be reading the contents of the Karma by brute force and takes about a half hour to read in a few thousand songs.  And it doesn’t store the database so it does this every single time you start the music manager.  Not a showstopper, though - if I want to see what’s on the Karma I can do that by looking at the display on the Karma.  As long as I can put songs on it, I’m fine.  I tried to load an album.  It reported success!  I unplugged the Karma and went to find the album…nowhere to be found.  Whatever the built-in music manager was doing, it was doing it WRONG!  So close, yet so far.

But thinking of music managers, I remember seeing something in the Linux Karma how-to about a guy named Bob Copeland who had cooked up a Karma plug-in for a music manager called Banshee.  The installation looked a little troubling…you had to use the patch command to install a diff onto the source code and then there’s all the dependency nonsense that comes with trying to compile it. 

Ever the optimist I searched for it in the repository and there it was.  A couple of clicks later I had launched Banshee and without any further prodding, it spotted the Karma and queried the database displaying all of the songs!  Amazing!  I started looking at the settings and I noticed that it had the same “no MP3 encoder” syndrome as the built-in music manager.  Evidently they are both referencing the same thing even though it’s not clear what that might be.  Some research said it was a gstreamer plugin, but as far as I could see in the package manager, I already had a bunch of gstreamer plugins installed and one of them *had* to be MP3 support, right?  Apparently not.  Then I noticed a package called something like “ubuntu-restricted-extras.”  The name is a little bit cryptic in that while it’s apparently extras that are restricted (not open source) it doesn’t really clearly say “Install this package to get an MP3 encoder” but it does obliquely reference MP3 support in the description.  I gave it a whirl and suddenly MP3 appeared as an option in the config of Banshee.  Just to test, I loaded the built-in ripper and music manager and they also had MP3 now.  Apparently this problem could have been solved fairly easily if only there was some solid document telling you to simply install that package.  I’m sure it’s on some wiki or forum somewhere but it didn’t come up very high in a Google search!

I’ve got to say this part is an amazing success story and a glimmer of how fun and easy to use linux could be.  This Banshee program supports Karma right out of the box!  Amazing!

The rest of the saga is more linux headache, albeit entirely of my own doing..  I had at some point gone looking for the user manual for Banshee thinking that maybe I had to make a setting change somewhere to enable MP3 support.  I noticed on the Banshee website that the package in the repository is pretty far out of date and the new version has some really nice-looking features.  Seeing as Karma works right out of the box, I might as well give this new one a try!  In defense of linux, I have often lamented running into problems with Windows when trying to “get more out of something.”  Not just a linux problem there.

In any case, I followed the instructions to hook up to the Banshee repository and install the package and dependencies.  Went off without a hitch.  Score another one for linux!  I launched the program and there was my Karma nestled in the pretty updated user interface.  Clicked on it…a progress bar came up…a little bit of time passed…the progress bar disappeared.  No music listed.  It doesn’t actually work.

A little more research.  A post from Bob Copeland - Karma support had somehow been omitted from the release.  Attached was a diff file to be used with the patchcommand, but you had to apply it to the source code and then compile.  More adventures in building.  Fortunately they’ve got things set up so that you can automatically download the build dependencies, so it was actually straightforward.  The patch seemed to work except on the changelog which, as far as I know, should not matter.  But when I compiled it, it did the same behavior.  I tried a few different ways without success.  I sent an e-mail to a guy who seemed to have had success with this and he confirmed that my steps looked correct but that patch wasn’t working.  His best offer was to try the latest development version since the Karma support had been re-added there already.  I figured the “old” Banshee works either way so I’ll just give it a try and if it works great, if not I’d just go back to the old one until the next major update of Banshee.

Building from the development svn source is a little different than the regular source, but mostly the same.  Once I figured it out and resolved a few dependency problems related to my local configuration, not Banshee, it built successfully.  Score another one for linux (or perhaps open source in general this time).  When I first launched the new Banshee it crashed.  No idea why…the second time it launched just fine and has been fine ever since.

But more importantly, the Karma was back and working correctly!  As I explored the UI I noticed a cool feature.  I’m sure other music managers already do this, but this was new to me.  You can set a preferred file format for each DAP that you have and it will automatically transcode whatever file format is on your hard drive into the one you want for your MP3 player.  You see I had run into some issues when I first got the Karma and Pearl - the Karma can play ANYTHING, the Pearl can only do MP3 and WMA.  Not realizing this I had ripped a bunch of stuff as Ogg only to have to re-rip it as MP3 for the Pearl.  Not wanting to have multiple file types, I just stuck with MP3 even though I think the Ogg format is a little better.  With the transcoding feature, it doesn’t matter.  I can rip the CDs using lossless FLAC and then automatically transcode them to MP3 for X’s Sansa and Ogg for my Karma! 

After a little further tweaking and removal of the crappy default ripper and music managers (why don’t they use Banshee as the default?  Even the older repository version is much nicer!), I was ready for a final test of the process.

Inserted a CD.  Banshee launched automatically and automatically ripped the CD to FLAC.  Plugged in the Karma.  Dragged/dropped the album onto the Karma icon.  It converted the FLAC to Ogg and transferred them to the Karma.  Unmounted and unplugged the Karma and the music was there and played!  Success!  Now X can easily rip and manage her Sansa using a single intuitive program.  This is actually a pretty nice solution!   

More importantly, for the first time in over a year I’ve got new music on my MP3 player and I can start ripping CDs again!

If you look overall at this process, aside from the problem with the newer version of the driver mysteriously not working at all, getting this piece of nonstandard hardware working was remarkably straightforward.  Most of the headache came trying to install the newer version of Banshee not in the repository - headaches that are one of the main reasons we use repositories now.

Overall it’s a sign of how far Linux has come and how close it is to being ready for prime time.  Not quite there, but ever closer.  Banshee is a really nice program and of course I’ve got to shout out Bob Copeland for the Karma integration and Benjamin Jao Ming for the Ubuntu-specific help.

Thoughts after the Olympics

August 25th, 2008

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First: Dear news outlets and casual observers: NO ONE ‘WINS THE OLYMPICS.’  The end of the games has brought with it the usual wrap-ups of “The Medal Count” (not to mention the analyses of “The Medal Count” for the past two weeks).  People wringing their hands that China “won” because of more golds.  The US “won” because of more overall.  If the US wants to continue “winning the Olympics” they are going to have to employ China’s strategy of focusing on individual events with multiple medals instead of big team events where a stack of beefy athletes can only get one medal.

No one “wins the Olympics.”  The individual medal count can be useful as an at-a-glance indicator of how your team is doing overall.  Of course it needs to be put into context, so you need to see the medal counts for other countries alongside so you can compare.  And the list has to be ordered somehow.  All necessary evils.  But all of the interpretation and extrapolation that comes out of it is annoying and unnecessary.

No one “wins the Olympics.”  Until the Olympics begins awarding medals for overall national performance, the most medals and the most gold medals are meaningless metrics.  I think in the US we simply can’t come to grips with a game having no clearly defined winner, so we have to come up with a way to declare someone the winner even if it’s not real.  I think every medal count graphic should come with a disclaimer that the “medal count” has no actual meaning because no one “wins the Olympics.”

Second: NBC did a better job in covering the games than in the past, but they still screwed the pooch.  You can find plenty of commentary on this, so I won’t rehash it all here.  I will list my biggest gripe which was that as in past years they primarily fed us a steady diet of swimming, track, beach volleyball and gymnastics, especially during prime time.  I will give NBC the benefit of the doubt here that these are believed to be the sports that are most popular in the US and they have to cater to the market demands.  No problem.  At least they gave us a lot of on-line options (though this could still be better).

But I was bothered by a way-too-short segment on the Nightly News that aired 8/24.  It was about unsung Olympic heroes of the US.  People that won medals that you probably never heard about.  And it was way too topical and short.  Stop the presses!  Doesn’t NBC have the exclusive US broadcast rights?  Why didn’t we hear about them?  I don’t think NBC has a right to do a piece on the “Unsung Heroes” that are unsung in large part because NBC could not be bothered to sing about them.  That seems awfully hypocritical.

I will also rehash my gripes from 2006 that they make the broadcast coverage more DVR friendly.  It is absolutely unhelpful to have a 10-hour block of programming that lists a jumble of events.  Why can’t they be broken into smaller increments?  It’s especially confounding considering so much of what we saw was pre-recorded. Still, I’m willing to put up with last minute scheduling changes screwing things up.  I’d rather miss a few things that way than have to choke my DVR hard drive with 9 hours of garbage I don’t want to see just I can take a peak at some hour-long offbeat event I don’t get to see often.  Maybe you can also put mainstream stuff on NBC and then devote another network (or at least a daily program) to offbeat events.

A Day At The Races

August 21st, 2008

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My hopes of racing in Nationals were dashed, but as I mentioned previously my rookie season as a paddler was far from over.  Nationals are the culmination (at least they are every other year when there is not a world championship), but there are still other races to participate in.  What’s curling without bonspiels?  What’s dragon boat racing without…well…races?

First up was the Independence Dragon Boat Regatta.  This is PDBA’s own event.  In retrospect it might have made sense to either simply attend the regatta as a spectator or perhaps join one of the teams participating.  But, numerous calls for volunteers went out to the mailing list.  The curling club is a completely volunteer organization and I know firsthand how important and hard it is to find enough volunteers to get all of the jobs done without a tiny core group working themselves to death.  Volunteering is also a really good way to kickstart your social involvement in a group.  We really started to get to know people at the club once we started helping out with events.  And at the end of the day helping out at the events is a lot of fun.  I had a performance of Footloose the night before and the night of, so I had some restrictions about how early I could come and how long I could stay but with a huge event open to the public and expecting 1000+ participants, the team was not going to turn away any offers!  X and I volunteered and, serendipitously, were placed in the food service tent.  Most people would probably avoid the food tent but X and I love cooking and entertaining and often dream out loud of opening a restaurant of some kind.  It seemed like a fun time.

We arrived, picked up out t-shirts and made our way to the food service tent where we introduced ourselves to the crew chief who was running the show along with his wife and son.  At first I was a bit concerned that we would be standing around in the way (one of the common pitfalls of volunteer situations - sometimes you get more people than jobs, sometimes you get team leaders who aren’t good at delegating.  In both situations you have volunteers with nothing to do).  There didn’t seem to be any specific jobs to be assigned to us.  But, the lunchtime rush was just starting to begin and a “Hey, can you do _____ for me?” quickly established jobs for us.  X was handing out plates, taking orders, collecting money.  I joined father Al and son Radley by the grills where I spent the next 5 hours servicing a series of rapid-fire requests.  Requests that came in so fast that it was often impossible to complete one before another came in!  I told Al that I always thought of becoming a chef and he said “You’ll be cured of that affliction by the end of the day.”  He was wrong.  After 5 hours I was completely soaked with sweat, had drunk 2 full liters of water and had developed a decent sunburn on my neck (I quickly snuck a sunblock break in the middle of the action but forgot to get my neck in my rush), and I didn’t really want to stop because I was having so much fun.  Nonetheless, I had to be able to get home and cleaned up and rested for the show that night.  We had built in some time to watch some races and explore the festival, but we actually stayed at the food tent through that time and had to go right home.  Footloose just requires too much energy to do without a break.

So our actual first dragon boat race didn’t actually include any racing.  We didn’t race, we didn’t see any races.  But we had a good time and the following practice for the first time I knew some people beyond just familiar faces that I saw at practice every day prior.

The real race would not come until July 12 at the Fingerlakes International Dragon Boat Festival in Ithaca, NY.  Since boatspiels are primarily outdoor events, this seemed like a good trip to bring along our faithful furry companion Maggie.  One cool thing about these festivals is that if you go on festival trips organized by the team, the team covers the cost of admission.  There is some prize money available so the team picks up the tab in the hopes that they will offset that cost by winning the prize money.  As a result you just have to pay for your hotel and transportation.  The only downside is that at bonspiels, food is usually provided with the admission cost.  It was strongly recommended that rookies participate in this event to get some race experience, so we had a lot of rookies in attendance which helped to unify us.

We left after work on July 11.  The drive was uneventful.  Maggie loves riding in the car.  After a few minutes of excitedly looking out the window, the motion puts her to sleep.  There was a little bit of traffic getting on the Turnpike and with the car not moving, she actually was getting a little antsy, but once we got moving again she was out like a light.  We bought her a doggie car seat and a travel harness.  The car seat may seam silly but it elevates her so that she can look out the window if she wants.  After awhile she got antsy, though.  I think the seat doesn’t quite give her enough room to sprawl out the way she likes.  We let her off the seat and just used the tow loop on the travel harness hooked to the seatbelt and after that she slept pretty soundly the rest of the ride.  We stopped about halfway to get some gas, a snack and take her for a walk.  She could easily go the whole way without a walk, but no dog has ever turned down a walk.

We arrived at the hotel around 11PM and checked in, dropped off our bags and took Mags for a walk around the hotel grounds.  I was a little worried that she would bark at every little noise she heard while we were in the room, but she was totally quiet  the whole night!  We got to bed early.  I had studied the somewhat complex race schedule and it appeared that our first time trial was not until around 10AM, but the e-mail from the coach asked us to arrive at the race site by 7:30.  I figured the coach knew something I didn’t (maybe all paddlers have to check in regardless of race time?) so I got to bed early to not be TOO tired.  I was able to bum a ride with a teammate staying in the same hotel which meant that X and Mags wouldn’t have to get up with me so early.

We arrived at the race site around 7:20.  The race site is a man-made canal (or perhaps a natural canal enhanced by humans) on the Cuyoga Inlet near the Ithaca Boating Center.  The weather was beautiful in the morning, sunny and cool with a little bit of a breeze.  The race course has a bridge just beyond the finish line where you can stand and watch the race and there were bleachers on the far side of the river.  In the background, rolling hills rose all around, covered with lush green trees.  I had heard that Ithaca was a dreary, gray place.  From my vantage it seemed anything but gray.

The PDBA contingent was easy to locate between the yellow shirts and the people that I recognized.  We got ourselves situated (note to self: bring chairs to the next boatspiel) and chatted about the drive up, the accommodations, etc.  Julian and some of the other rookies decided to camp nearby and between arriving near midnight, having to set up tents, and the sounds of a nearby couple’s amorous activities did not get a very good rest!  A short time later the coach appeared and with his trademark sarcasm/irony announced that no one was racing for a couple of hours and that we should have slept another couple of hours!  Guess my instinct was right!

We hung out by the riverside and the time went quickly.  It was really the first opportunity I had to actually interact with most of my teammates.  People chatter a little bit before and after practice.  It’s impossible to have a conversation during practice.  There is some chatter at the time trials, but most people are getting themselves psyched up for their run or cheering on people as they paddle.  So I got to actually meet some of these people and learn a little bit about them.

Before the women’s time trials, the coach gave them a pep talk including a strongly-worded warning not to look outside the boat at any time.  I’m not sure if his threat to bench anyone that he saw looking around was a serious one (note trademark sarcasm mentioned above), but it’s good advice either way.  I actually find it hard to look around when I’m paddling because I’m so focused on the actual paddling!

The races started with a pair of 250m time trials for each team.  Your times in the time trials relative to other teams in your division determine your seeding for the actual race bracket.  I have no idea if they use the best time, the average of the two or even the worst time to determine the seedings.  We had two divisions, women and mixed.  The women took the top seed with 1:10 runs each time.

Soon after, the mixed team was called up and we made our way to the first staging area.  It was already beginning to get very hot and the staging area had a shaded area to wait.  While we waited and got ourselves psyched up, another paddler gave me a pep talk.  He mentioned remembering how nervous he was before his first race.  I actually wasn’t nervous. On an individual level there’s really not a whole lot that you can screw up.  I was certainly a little nervous that our rookie-heavy lineup would get our butts kicked but beyond doing my job the best that I possibly could the performance of the rest of the boat was completely beyond my control.

We moved onto the second staging area where you pick up a life jacket (required for all paddlers) and a paddle if you don’t have your own and then line up before boarding.  For some reason they try to enforce a boarding procedure so they would tell us “Load both ends at the same time” or “Front end loads first.”  And it was different each time we loaded!  I guess maybe inexperienced teams might need coaching but we manage to successfully get in and out of our boats at practice 6 days a week, so it seemed to place an administrative burden on a process that is normally quick and easy with people trying to get in the boat and being stopped by officials on the dock.  We finally managed to load the boat to the officals’ satisfaction, though.

As the coach stepped in, he handed me a paddle and said “Use this paddle.  It won gold at Worlds.”  I’m not superstitious, but my own paddle is secondhand and has a sketchy palm grip that I had tenuously repaired with some epoxy.  I was not certain it would hold up especially under hard-paddling race conditions, so I stowed my paddle and grabbed the coach’s.  He ended up reclaiming his paddle after the first time trial (he wanted that length shaft instead of however long his other paddle was), so I used my own paddle the rest of the day.  My repair did hold up, however.

After shoving off from the dock, we did a little bit of warm-up paddling followed by a practice start.  It was starting to get really hot, so while we waited for our turn to start we paddled into a shady area provided by a tree on the bank.  As we waited there was some last-minute words advice to the newbies, general psych-up drills and the like.  The time came and we paddled to the starting line and began the tedious task of getting the boats into alignment which consists of the starter telling the various boats to paddle a little or hold water a little until they are all lined up.  Then they give the commands just like in the time trial…”Ready…Attention…GO!”

And we tore off down the river.  The 250m time trial ends in the blink of an eye.  It barely takes a minute.  Unlike the 500m, it seems like this really is a short enough race that even going full bore for the whole thing I don’t really get too tired.  We do this kind of thing in practice pretty much every day of the week.  We won our heat.  Of course it’s a time trial so the real metric is whether our time was faster than all of the other mixed boats in all of the heats.  It was, but we still had one more time trial.  The time trials were in short enough succession that we simply turned the boats around and paddled back to the start line.  Well first we paddled back to our shady area while we waited for the next race to finish.  We did a little refueling and that’s when I thought to myself that maybe I should have brought some water on board!  I made a note to grab a bottle next time around.

The next race finished and we paddled back to the starting line and took off again.  We got a similar time (something around 1:06) and maintained our position as top seed going into the head-to-head race brackets.  We paddled back to the dock and hopped out to await our first actual race.  I grabbed some water and a Clif bar.  X was now here with Maggie who was having a grand old time harassing other dogs and enjoying the attention of the people.  There was a big yellow lab sleeping by a tree and she walked right up to this other dog and poked him right in the belly with her snout!  She is crazy sometimes.  The other dog eyed her in a way that said “Are you serious?”

It was really hot, though, and we were concerned about Maggie in the heat, so X packed her up and we walked to the car.  X offered to drive me back to the race site.  It wasn’t very far and I thought I had plenty of time so I hopped in.  When I arrived at the race site a few minutes later one of the women NOT paddling on the mixed boat said “Hey, Troy…aren’t you on the mixed boat?  They called you up like 2 minutes ago!”  Wow…they turn these races around faster than I thought.  Despite my plans to the contrary, no time to grab a bottle of water to bring aboard!  I was going to have to tough it out.

We actually spent enough time in the staging area that I could have got some water, but I didn’t want to chance it.  We loaded up, went through the same rituals as before except we were now 250m further up the river so we had to find a new shady spot, which we found in a little cove.  The cove was near a farmers market and people visiting the farmers market gathered to gawk at the somewhat bizarre boat hovering near the shore.  We were called up to the starting line and the race began.  I just tried to focus on good technique and keeping in sync.  Since the race is seeded and were the top seed, we were up against lower-seeded teams so we did not have to go all-out and I did not have to kill myself.  We won our first heat and we were one step closer to victory.

I wasn’t feeling any dehydration effects yet, but I was getting worried.  It had been a good 4 hours since I really got a chance to hit some fluids.  When we got back on solid ground I didn’t waste a whole lot of time celebrating and pretty much ran for the food tents where I got a bottle of nice cold water and went through it pretty quickly so I got another.  It was also getting around lunch time so I decided to seek lunch.  They had some really interesting food choices.  The requisite hot dogs and hamburgers of course, but they also had Thai, Caribbean, Cambodian and Cuban food!  All of these sounded really good and as a fan of weird and exotic food I was definitely intrigued by the Cambodian food, but it smelled spicy and I ultimately decided that given the 90+ degree heat and the fact that I still had two more races ahead of me that I should eat something a little less exotic.  I settled for a delicious Cuban sandwich and some excellent fried plantains.  I finished my 2nd bottle of water as I ate, so I went back and got a third.  I was no longer too concerned about dehydration…dodged that little bullet!

We were called up for our 2nd run.  This time I had that water bottle with me!  We went through the same old staging and loading procedures and paddled to our shady cove again.  We were called to the line, got aligned and off we went.  This race was a little tougher but we kept our heads in the boat and our paddles going and again we were the first to cross the line.  We had now made it to the “A” finals, which for your curlers out there is equivalent to the 1st event.  The big dance.  It was Sunday on a Saturday afternoon.

X left Maggie at the hotel but came back to the river to watch the final race.  We hung out watching other races and exploring the vendor tents.  The old-timers admonished us to stay out of the energy-sapping sun, so we found a small patch of shade in our tent out of which we occasionally ventured to watch a passing boat.

At last, we were called for our final race.  In addition to the process surrounding our prior races, the final race staging also included an ID check.  Presumably this is to ensure that we didn’t stack the boat with ringers.  I don’t know if this has ever been attempted or is just being done as a precaution.  I hope it’s just a precaution.  Frankly I can’t figure out why, if you could come up with ringers to race in your team’s name, you wouldn’t just put them on your roster.  Maybe they are trying to eliminate last minute roster changes subbing in fresh paddlers who haven’t paddled 4 other races over the day? I don’t really know.  Either way, all teams passed the ID check with no anomalies and we were off to the boats. 

“There’s no tomorrow here.  Don’t save anything.  Leave it all on the water.  Even if we get a big lead keep paddling full pressure until you cross the finish line.”  Those were the words from the veterans.  We lined up at the start, got aligned, and attacked on command.  Not long after the race got underway things got a little hairy.  The boat to our right in lane 4 was having a steering problem.  I think their steersman might have lost his grip on the steering oar and sent the boat careening in our direction. 

When we practice we often have 2 or 3 boats and we keep them in fairly tight formation.  We practice upstream of just about all of the rowing traffic so we pretty much have the entire width of the river available,  yet we often run into situations where the boats are close enough to slap paddles.  We are strongly encouraged to paddle through these situations and resist the urge to stop, slow down, pull the paddle into the boat, etc.  Turns out there’s a reason for this apparent madness.

As our next door neighbor plowed towards us, our steerswoman shouted to the other steersman to get back in his lane, move over, etc.  By the time he had gotten his boat collected we were just a few feet apart and our starboard battery was slapping paddles with their port side battery.  We’ve practiced this contingency so it was pretty much business-as-usual.  They paddled through the interference until the other boat was out of striking range.  I have no idea how this impacted our performance.

This 500m all-out sprint was now starting to feel like the time trials.  I could see the bridge ahead just beyond the finish line.  It seemed pretty close, but it also did not appear to be getting any closer.  I was getting winded, my arms were tingling.  I just focused my eyes on a spot that allowed me to simultaneously watch both my seat partner and the paddler in the front of the boat and told myself to keep breathing, keep paddling and keep my strokes in time.

The lanes were generally unmarked except for a row of buoys every 100 meters or so.  I wasn’t interested in counting them as they passed, but I did see them as we went by.  I knew the other boats were alongside us.  From my vantage point I had no idea who was farther ahead.  I dared not turn my head far enough to look.  What I did notice was a set of buoys approaching and based on how close the bridge had finally loomed, this HAD to be the finish line, right?

Well let’s just say it’s fortunate that my long history in marching band has made me a very command-oriented person.  When the commander says “march,” I march until the commander says “halt” even if we’ve already reached what I believed to be the destination.  Likewise even though I thought we had crossed the finish line, I kept paddling as hard as I could waiting to hear the command to back off.  That command never came - there was still one more set of buoys ahead!  This was not the finish line.  I kept paddling and paddling and finally we reached that last set of buoys and went under the bridge and the command to back off was issued.  You might think that the actual race would be at least a little less strenuous than the OC1 test because the actual race takes less time and you aren’t singlehandly pulling the boat.  Well I was either slacking in the OC1 test or the race is MORE strenuous because I have not been that winded in a long, long time.

Immediately after crossing the finish line, I still had no idea who actually won.  From my vantage point I still couldn’t see which boat was farther ahead.  But word quickly filtered down to those of us in the back of the boat.  We had won!  After spending by entire first season of curling getting soundly beaten (and my second season getting beaten most of the time) it was certainly nice to start off with a win!

After getting back to the dock we shook hands with the other teams.  Fortunately dragon boating has not adopted curling’s custom of every player shaking everyone else’s hands, otherwise we would have been at that all night!  We cleaned up our team area and some team members made a plan to meet up for dinner prior to the official party that night.

Back to the hotel to freshen up.  We also tried to go in the hot tub but it was under repair so we settled for a few minutes in the sauna instead.  I would have like a nap but there just wasn’t enough time to make dinner and get a nap, so we settled for dinner where we made merry and got to know some of our paddling friends further beyond the boundaries of paddling.

Then it was time for the party.  The race organizers put on a great party.  In fact, the party is so popular that it seems the organizers agonize over increasing the cap on the number of teams that can enter (which would require Sunday racing and make people less keen on staying up late partying Sat night or even Sun night).  Honestly, I was totally bushed and I was primarily at the party for one thing and one thing only.  But first they had door prizes.  Nice door prizes.  A lot of them were bottles of wine from local vineyards, but there were some other things as well.  One of those other things was a cookbook from the famous Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca.  When they announced that, I thought to myself “Forget the wine….I’d much rather have the cookbook!  Not that we’ll actually win anything…”  Well when they pulled a ticket for the cookbook, X’s number came up!  Score!

Then came the important part.  The medal presentations.  You read that right.  Medals.  They give the winning paddlers gold medals!  OK it’s not like they assemble everyone on a podium and force the other racers to sing the Eagles fight song as a flaming Dallas Cowboys flag is hoisted to the rafters, but a gold medal is pretty fun.  I like curling pins because they are small and easy to store or display but I think I could get used to this medal business and will be happy to buy another shadow box to display it :-)

After a few more congratulations to my teammates, we headed out.  I was exhausted and we didn’t want to leave Maggie alone in the hotel room any longer than we had to, so we took the gold medal and the cookbook and headed back and went to bed!

The next morning we decided to explore the area a little bit before we came home.  It was rainy and overcast out.  Someone at dinner the night before told us that Ithaca actually has more rainy days than Seattle and that the Dragon Boat festival always manages to score one of the rare clear, sunny days!  Seems like he might have been correct.

We drove to the Cornell campus and wandered around it for a bit and then we headed back to the center of Ithaca where we were hoping to get lunch at Moosewood and also hoping that Maggie was welcome at their outdoor area.  Unfortunately Moosewood is only open for dinner on Sundays.  Boo!  We walked around a little bit and then decided to eat at D.P. Dough which X had located previously.  Not really exotic but there are no D.P. Doughs anywhere near us!  We parked a little ways away and walked over and ordered.  We noticed they had their own parking lot, so we decided instead of waiting to walk back to the car and drive it around.

SMART MOVE!  Just as we were getting in the car it began to rain.  By the time we got around the block to the parking lot it was an all-out downpour!  X ran in and got the food.  We decided that she should sit in the driver’s seat since she eats faster - when she finished and I was still eating she could start heading home.

Drive home was uneventful.  Maggie figured out how to back out of her harness, which she did with great stealth and zeal 2 or 3 times.  One minute she would be laying on the back seat on the passenger side, then you would look back and she would either be sitting proudly in the middle or sleeping on the driver’s side of the back seat or even on the floor!

In any case, my first race was a success and it was a lot of fun.  I can also add to “Olympic Hopeful” the title of “Gold Medal-winning Athlete,” a title which I have not hesitated in using even when it hardly makes any sense as in “You don’t like curry because you’re not a Gold Medal-winning Athlete!”

I’ll keep you posted if I go to more races this summer!

Two-And-A-Half Minutes Of Hell

August 5th, 2008

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I did not expect paddling 500m in an outrigger canoe fast enough to qualify for the national team to be an easy task by any means.  I did think that completing the test in a reasonable amount of time would be fairly trivial. 

In the week preceding my first test, I had received some good advice from my mentors and I had it all planned out.  I would start with 3 hard strokes to get moving, 20 sprint strokes to get up to speed and then settle in at my closest approximation of the stroke rate we maintain during practice.  Evelyn had also recommended doing a “Power 20″ (20 hard, up-rate strokes) every so often as well.  It all seemed quite sensible.  Backstage during Footloose I had envisioned it in my mind many times.  Based on race results I looked at, I project that it would take me approximately 2.5 minutes to run through 500m.  We routinely go full-bore at practice for 6 minutes or more, so 2.5 minutes should be a piece of cake!

The tests are usually taken in a section of the Schuylkill River Canal in Manayunk.  The canal is shallow, narrow, fairly well-sheltered from wind, and generally slow moving.  It’s basically a more controlled environment than the open river.  It’s also easier to manage since the paddler and the starter and timer are closer to each other and can communicate better.

I arrived at the test site a little early and found a few team members waiting on a bridge for the canoes to arrive.  Once they arrived, I helped carry them to the water and then walked to the other side where there is a wooden deck that is used for loading and unloading and where everyone hangs out while they wait for their turn. My friend from day 1 Cliff had volunteered to paddle the left-outrigger across.  Since he was already in the boat, it was decided that he would go first.  Since I was the only other left-side paddler present so early, I would be the second to go.  One part of me wanted to at least see a few people go before I went.  The other part of me doesn’t put much stock in last-minute cramming and didn’t think seeing others go would help much.  I put my name on the list and got ready to run.

After Cliff finished his time trial, I was helped into the boat.  As I paddled towards the starting line, team members walked along on the canal towpath offering me some last minute encouragement and tips.  Closer to the starting line I was introduced to a guy named Ed who gave me an overview of the race course and where best to steer the boat.  Unfortunately the canal has a dogleg to the left so just paddling up the middle makes for a longer, slower ride.

As I approached the starting line, Ed handed me off to Margaret and Bob.  They were to my right.  Bob was giving me some instructions about steering, how the start procedure would work and other first-timer advice.  I was drifting past them so I had to turn my head to the right to see them.  Observant readers will recall that in my last post, the conditions that led to me flipping the boat while practicing involved looking back over my right shoulder.  Obviously I didn’t learn!  Bob Gannon had said he was going to come take pictures…fortunately he had not yet arrived to document that part of the test!  Of course being an expert at re-mounting these things, I righted the boat, hopped right back in and splashed all the water out of the footwells and got the thing turned around.

The time had come.  Bob gave me instructions to get my boat pointed in the right direction.  The start procedure goes “Ready…Attention…Go”.  From “Ready” to “Go” should ideally be 5 seconds.  When the starter says “Attention” you raise the paddle, ready to strike.  Bob yelled “Go” and I dug in hard.  I did my 3 hard strokes followed by 20 pops and then settled into the body of the run, just as planned.  But I did not foresee just how different the “race” situation would be.  I have noticed one thing in practice - the first piece in a set is always hardest for me.  I think once I get through that one my heartrate is elevated and I’m in the working mindset.  But I didn’t have that first piece to get myself going.  Maybe I need to sprint up to the starting line to get myself in gear…I noticed one guy run up and down the towpath before he started, which is another possibility.

In any case I think I was out of breath within about 30 seconds!  Once I’m out of breath, I become a lot less efficient.  My paddling technique gets a little sloppy and I forget to work the rudder pedals, causing me to zigzag on the course.  One cool thing was other members of the team jogged with me on the towpath, cheering me on, calling out when to do a ‘power 20,’ reminding me to use good technique, etc.  Some people ask not to have a “cheering squad,” some say they don’t even notice them when they do it.  But I noticed and I think I may have used their presence as a fear of failure hack to keep myself.  As I paddled along at what felt to me like a snail’s pace, barely able to breathe, the thought of giving up with all those people cheering me on was unthinkable; I had to keep paddling.

I finally crossed the finish line and successfully circled around in the narrow canal without flipping the boat again and returned to the dock.  My time: 2:49 and change.  Is that good or bad?  I had to ask since I didn’t know either.  Cliff told me that he did 2:49 his first time ever.  That’s encouraging.  Cliff also said that 3 minutes is sort of the Mendoza Line here - if you can break 3 minutes you should probably persist.  If you can’t break 3 minutes you might want to find a different pursuit.  So I have potential, at least.  I still was not sure how fast I needed to go to make one of the national teams. 

I hung out for awhile after the run, cheering on my teammates, observing how better paddlers paddle and catching up with Bob Gannon.  Bob missed my time trial (and my flipping the boat) but stuck around taking pictures of the team and some of the architecture around the canal.  I had seen him since the end of curling so it was nice to catch up!

I had another test the following week, so I practiced hard all week and spent more time in the OC1 hoping to build my chops some and improve my steering.  I wasn’t sure just how much time I could drop, but I was fairly certain that I could make significant gains just from using good technique more consistently and maintaining a straighter course.  My second time trial was more of the same.  I didn’t sprint to the starting line, but I did paddle up harder than I did before.  I maintained mostly the same game plan.  I felt just as winded just as quickly but I was prepared for it this time.  One thing I did notice:  you go under two bridges in the course.  When I came out from under the second bridge, I remember spotting the finish line and thinking “I’m almost there!” but as I frantically paddled, it did not seem to be getting closer!

But, when the churning was done, I had two successes.  The first was that I did not flip the boat!  The second, I had clocked in 2:39, dropping 10 seconds from my previous time.  I definitely took a faster course and I think I also paddled with better technique.  2:39 was not going to be fast enough to get me onto the team for the National Championships, but at least I made some good improvements, although I have another 20+ seconds to go before I can make it.

Unfortunately, this was going to be my last shot at qualifying for the year.  You actually get a lot of chances to qualify, but I missed many of them due to my commitments to Footloose.  I am not dissatisfied with my performance.  I started late in the season so I did not have a lot of time to develop the strength and techniques, but I was able to get a reasonably competitive level in that short time. 

This also does not mark the end of the season.  There are still races to compete in other than the Nationals (and to by honest, I had not budgeted for a trip to California in July!), and those who were not selected for Nationals are welcome/encouraged to continue coming to practice (although they may be asked to give up their seats or switch sides.  I only had to switch sides twice for a portion of practice.  I only saw one person have to give up a seat.).  When I set out on this adventure, competing at the national level never occurred to me.  I just wanted to get in shape, learn a new skill, get back into paddling, maybe meet some new friends.  As long as I could keep practicing, I was not overly heartbroken about not making the team.  I’ll certainly try again next year!

How to Huli in One Easy Step

July 15th, 2008

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After spending a few weeks practicing with the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association, I started hearing a lot of talk about thinks like “OC1″ and “Testing.”  Through a little bit of inquiry and careful observation, I figured some things out.  Like most sports teams, you have to try out.  In this case, you have to try out in order to be selected to be on one of the teams going to the US National Championships to be held in Long Beach, CA.  It’s probably obvious that figuring out who the 20 best paddlers are in any category (men, women, mixed, senior, etc) is not going to be an easy task if you have to put bunches of people in a dragon boat.  How can you figure out which paddlers are the ones actually propelling the boat the fastest?  Bob Gannon seemed to think that the tryout at one point involved a modified Concept2 rowing machine outfitted to simulate the dragon boat stroke.  I believe this is true, but things have changed.

Team brass have been doing this for quite some time.  A lot of the dragon boat paddlers participate in other paddle sports like canoeing.  Someone figured out that a one-man outrigger canoe with a pedal-operated rudder can basically be paddled using the same stroke we use in the dragon boat.  This is the mysterious “OC1″ that I kept hearing about.  The “test” that people kept talking about was a 500m (or in some cases 1000m) time trial.  Stands to reason that if you can find the 20 people who can paddle an OC1 the fastest and get them all synced up in a dragon boat, that’s going to be your fastest team, and that’s pretty much the way it works in reality.

The OC1 concept has its strengths and weaknesses.  The key strength is that it allows you to evaluate a paddler’s ability on an individual level and the paddler does not have to make any major stroke modifications.  The key weakness is…well…it’s not a dragon boat.  The seating position is not quite the same, the “feel” is different, and perhaps most significantly you have to steer it yourself.  It’s got a bit of a learning curve.  I was advised to try and practice in the OC1 at least 3 times before attempting a test.

Of course during the last two weeks of May and all of June my weekends (the tests were being held mostly on Saturday mornings) were heavily occupied by rehearsals for Footloose which made it hard for me to attend the tests.  I missed the first 2 or 3, but once the show started I was able to make it to tests - I would have to be careful about not staying out too late after the Friday night show, but it was feasible to get up and get out there.

But first…I had to learn how to use one of these darn OC1s!  I sent a plaintive message out the PDBA mailing list and was met rather quickly with a reply from another team member who was taking another team member out and would be happy to let me tag along.  The following morning after practice, I found myself carrying the light but cumbersome OC1s down to the floating dock where I got a brief overview of the terminology (the outrigger is called “amma” and the arm to which is attached is the “iako”) and some instruction on how to mount/dismount (you’re most likely to flip the thing trying to do one of these two operations), adjust the seat, and generally paddle.  Typically the outrigger is to your left (but we have a right-outrigger boat for right-side paddlers to test in) and basically the boat is completely stable on outrigger side and completely tippy on the other side, so try not to lean away from the outrigger (in my case to the right).  In an interesting side note, my instructor Evelyn is a specialized veterinarian and my co-pupil Kayla runs what I would best describe as a hardcore dog walking operation for high-energy dogs.

After getting situated in the boat, my instructor had me get started paddling and she and the other student would catch up.  After paddling a ways, I slowed down and waited for them to get to where I was.  After doling out some more advice and information, we decided to cross the river and head back upstream.  Our instructor did not have a lot of time and did not want to stray too far from the dock.  When we got across,  Evelyn was giving Kayla some advice on how to stay balanced in the seat while paddling.  Figuring I could benefit from this knowledge, I stopped and turned my head to listen.  Evelyn and Kayla were behind me and to my right.  Do you remember what I said above about which side is stable and which side is tippy?  I didn’t remember either…at least not until it was too late.  As I turned to the right, I felt a shift in the boat and snapped my head around to the left just in time to see that the outrigger was flying up over my head.  Before I could even begin to react, I was floating in the lovely Schuylkill river replete with goose droppings.  Outrigger canoeing is a sport full of Hawaiian and Polynesian terminology and they have a word for the aquatic equivalent of a ground loop: Huli.  I had just expertly performed one.

Evelyn told me to remain calm and gave me the steps necessary to recover.  The steps are about as simple as you might expect - flip the boat back over, get in between the hull and the outrigger, climb aboard.  I was pleased to learn that after 6 weeks of unlearning everything I knew from kayaking, finally one of my kayak skills was going to help me.  When you are surfing on a sit-on-top kayak you flip.  A lot.  I am no stranger to righting a capsized boat and climbing back on.  Except I’m used to doing it while being pounded by the surf.  Carrying out this process in the flat and relatively calm waters of the Schuylkill was trivial.  My cohorts actually seemed somewhat impressed at how easily I was able to recover, but that was all in a days’ work for me.

After recovering, we did some solid paddling for 20 minutes or so.  Steering is annoying and it’s very easy to overcorrect and start zigzagging.  I wonder if they make one with a rudder that can be trimmed to go in a straight line?  We then headed back ashore where Kayla showed me how to put the boats away and properly secure them.  I had received my OC1 wings and could now go out on solo excursions.  Heck, I had even demonstrated competence in the self-rescue procedure.  Of course most of my good sense tells me that it’s not the best idea to set sail in one of these alone but I figured if I bring along my life jacket I should be OK.

Except the next couple times I went alone, I forgot my life jacket, but I did not have much time to practice before my test, so I had to chance it anyway.  I really didn’t have any trouble, though.  I went on a couple solo runs.  I found that I have a tough time motivating myself.  I think I need someone to push me or at least give me some workout tips, but that will have to come a little later.

For now, I had learned how to use the OC1 (and huli) and while I can’t say I was “ready” to start taking tests, I felt that I could at least give it a shot.

Longer Boats Are Coming To Win Us

July 14th, 2008

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In May, Bob Gannon updated his Facebook status.  It said “Bob rows in the morning and mows in the evening.”  Bob was referring to rowing on his Concept2 rowing machine.  I thought he was rowing an actual boat, so I asked where he rows.  During my Brigantine days, I would watch members of the Brigantine Rowing Club coming and going from the boathouse next to the public boat ramp.  Rowing looked fun.  I wished we had a crew at TCNJ (NB: It appears that a club crew team was founded in 2003 at TCNJ.  I can’t find a lot of information, but I did find race results indicating they were active in 2007, but nothing for 2007-2008 and their web page defunct.  A lot of what I did find indicates they spent more time doing typical club athletic activities than actual rowing (it always seemed like the club sport teams were basically party fraternities without greek letters) so I probably wouldn’t have like it anyway).  I fantasized about getting up early in the morning and going out for a row before work.  I had even at some point investigated joining the Upper Merion Boat Club but they weren’t offering any beginner clinics that year and I have never heard from them since.  I have not picked up a paddle since my parents left the beach and I have missed being on the water in any capacity.

The coolness of social networking kicked in almost immediately.  Eric P chimed in shortly after to state that while he doesn’t know much about rowing, he does help out with dragon boating and that he could get me in touch with someone if I really wanted to try it.  I did not hesitate to take him up on his offer.  While I awaited his response, I did a bit of research on dragon boating…I had heard of it, but for some reason I thought it was sort of a joke sport like Cardboard Regatta.  Like people got together and dressed up in ridiculous costumes and along with the racing there’s a lot of partying and socializing.  Sort of like a bonspiel now that I think about it.  But nobody does it as a “sport” or “workout scheme.”  And there are festivals that are more fun/party than serious racing but, just like curling, there are also serious races (and by serious I mean no ridiculous costumes, but still partying and socializing, I think).  But there are actually serious dragon boat teams.  And the serious teams practice a few times a week.  Some twice a week.  Some 6 times a week!  In my research I came across the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association website which had a contact for people interested in paddling, so I figured I’d drop them a line as well.

I got some responses from a variety of corporate/festival teams, some practicing 2-3 times a week, some just practicing once/month for three months for the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival in October.  The trouble was almost all of them practice in the evenings which has the benefit of not getting up early, but at the same time evenings are always so busy as it is.

I also got a response from Jim at PDBA asking if I could come to practice the coming Sunday at 7AM.  Yikes.  I don’t want to get up at 7AM.  Why?  Fear of failure, maybe?  I told Jim I’d go.  And I did.  When I arrived at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Strawberry Mansion, I was told my a friendly police woman (that might sound sarcastic, but she really was very nice and apologetic) that there was a regatta going on and no one told her about any dragon boat practice so she could not let me through.  I drove to the downriver roadblock and the cop there recommended I go back to the other side.  When I told him I was already there he told me I was pretty much out of luck.  I turned around and drove home.  A nagging bit of my brain kept telling me that this was also “fear of failure” but I convinced myself there was nothing more I could do - by the time I got back to the other side of the roadblock, I’d have literally missed the boat, so I went home, e-mailed my contact with my apologies and went back to bed.

By Monday I had arranged to try again on Tuesday.  Actually I told Jim from PDBA I wanted to go on Thursday (I was not mentally prepared to wake up at 5AM the next day) but he said there was another rookie starting Tuesday, so it would be convenient since the coach could give both of us an overview that day, so I agreed to go on Tuesday.  “I might as well start getting used to getting up at 5AM” I told him.

5AM on Tuesday…I woke before the sun was even up.  It was pretty cold…in the 40s.  Knowing that I was going to be completely groggy in the morning, I made sure to pack everything I needed the night before.  I got dressed, grabbed my lunch and ran out the door.  I got to the dock side a little before 5:30.  I was pretty sure I was in the right place, but the parking lot was completely deserted (I had to come a little bit early for some instruction).  I walked around the boathouse trying to figure out where people would meet and after a few minutes a car pulled into the lot and waited.  I walked over and asked the driver if he knew anything about a dragon boat practice and he said that he was there for practice and invited me to hop into his car while we waited for the others to arrive.  He did not offer me a candy bar so I swallowed all of my “stranger danger” instincts and got in. 

Here I met my first PDBA team member.  Cliff fell into the game somewhat by accident.  His son was going to join but was not sure where the boathouse was so Cliff led him to practice one morning and was told there were some empty seats and he was welcome to give it a try if he wanted to.  He’s been coming back ever since.  As we chatted more and more cars pulled in.  I told Cliff I was supposed to meet the coach for some general instruction.  He pointed the coach out to me and I thanked him and got out of the car and walked over and introduced myself.

Bob the coach gave me and another rookie a brief overview of the paddle stroke which seemed pretty sensible and perhaps even intuitive, but it’s actually more complex than you might think.  I’m pretty sure I forgot all about it the second I got in the boat.  After this brief overview I was handed a paddle and walked down the ramp to the dock where other paddlers were loading up into the boats.  Someone told us to just hop in, but I was a little leery of stepping on someone’s toes.  With my luck I’d sit in the seat of the team’s best paddler and end up looking like a total ass.  I waited until most people were seated and then shoehorned myself into the rear seat of one of the boats.  The rear seat is not quite large enough for someone of my size to share with pretty much anyone else.  But they try to put newbies in the back so that there are less people behind them to screw up and so that the helmsman can keep an eye on them and provide some assistance.

On the boat, I did my best just to keep up.  I was met with a variety of commands that made little sense to me.  We were doing an interval drill that consisted of 6 minutes of hard paddling with 2 minutes of light paddling/rest in between.  I pretty much set out to just keep the paddle moving through the water.  I allowed myself to stop paddling early a couple of times during the light paddle periods, as I was really getting fatigued.  All the while, a guy named Pete was at the helm behind me offering me encouragement and advice, primarily reminders that I don’t worry about paddling “hard” but just think about doing the proper technique.

After awhile, the boats pulled up to the dock and a lot of people including the other rookie got out and began walking toward the parking lot.  I had no idea what was going on, so I followed them thinking they were going to do some sort of land-based exercise.  Nope.  At the top of the ramp, people were chatting and/or getting in their cars to leave.  I asked what was going on and they said these people had to leave for work but those who could stay were going to go paddle for another 15-20 minutes.  Interesting.  I felt like *someone* should give me some sort of debriefing after my first day, so even though Pete (who had also been the one to give me a paddle) told me I could leave the paddle on the dock, I went back down to the dock to await the return of the boats just to see what happened.  I figured someone would say “How did you like it?  Do you want to come back?” or at least “You definitely don’t have what it takes, so please don’t come back.”  It was 6:45AM…not like I had anything better to do…

This turned out to be a great decision.  When Pete saw me standing on the dock, he immediately came over to give me some more instruction.  He actually put me in a boat and spent a good 20-30 minutes working with me on the proper stroke (which, I might add, I was doing completely wrong).  He told me to look for him before any practice and I was welcome to borrow one of his paddles.  I did not see the coach after practice, but I decided that if I was a lost cause Pete (who seems to be one of the respected longtime members) would not have wasted a half hour of his time trying to teach me good technique, so this must mean that I at least did well enough that I could come back and keep working.  I felt a the same feeling of accomplishment I felt when I finally made it to the top of the multipitch climb in the Gunks.  I could hear Vince in my mind…”When you get to the top of this thing, you’re gonna thank me.”

I got to work and was so sore I could barely lift my arms up to my keyboard to type!  I spent most of the day in the beanbag chairs where I don’t really have to raise my arms to reach my laptop cradled in my lap.

That night, I debated whether I should go back to practice.  I definitely had a good time, but I was still not sold on having to wake up at 5AM and I was so sore that taking a day to recover didn’t seem like a bad idea.  At the time I was also rehearsing for Footloose on weeknights which meant dancing at rehearsals and not getting to bed early. 

In retrospect, I think the second day is the make-or-break.  I repeated my mantra.  I told myself that in reality my hesitation had NOTHING to do with sore muscles or lack or sleep.  I told myself that my hesitation was pure fear of failure - that I would be told not to come back.  That I would completely tire and sit as dead weight on the boat for the remainder of practice.  I packed my bag and resolved to go to practice the second day. 

The other rookie that started the previous day did not show up that day.  I waited on the dock for Pete who had offered me the use of his paddle, but he must have been running late.  I was nervous that he wasn’t coming to practice that day so I rousted up a heavy wooden paddle from someone else.  Gingerly, I got in the boat.  I nervously awaited the order to begin paddling, afraid that I would not even be able to move the paddle through the water.  When the order came, though, I found that I could move my paddle just fine!  I resolved at this point to keep paddling through the entire practice, never stopping unless given a command to stop paddling.  There had to be a reason the coach and steersmen kept saying to “paddle it out” the day before after the hard paddling segment was finished.  It helped somewhat that the day’s drill featured 90 seconds of hard paddling followed by a rest/light paddle period.  While my endurance has waned since my days as a swimmer, one of the side effects of curling is that still have pretty solid recovery - I can drive really hard for short bursts and then quickly get my breathing and heartrate back to something fairly reasonable.  I survived the practice.  When they docked at 6:45 I even stayed in the boat for the extra half hour.  My arms were REALLY killing me now, but I had accomplished my goal of paddling continuously unless told to stop.  At the end of practice, no one told me quit.  A few people did ask me how I was liking it.  I noted that the other rookie did not come that second day.

As I said, day 2 was make-or-break.  After surviving the second day of practice I was pretty much cured of all fear and uncertainty.  There wasn’t even any question in my mind about going on the third day.  I decided that I would keep going to practice until someone told me to stop going to practice.

During my second week, I caught the attention of the women’s coach.  She was steering and noticed my ridiculously bad paddling technique.  Everything I always did in the kayak was pretty much wrong.  Maybe it’s not wrong for kayaking but it’s dead-wrong for dragon boat.  I was using way too much of my arms and not nearly enough of the much stronger core muscle groups.  After making the 6:45 dropoff, she sat behind me and really helped me make a breakthrough in my technique.  She also let me know that prior to forming up the National teams, men were welcome at the Friday morning women’s practices in which she focuses heavily on technique since everyone trains for stamina, etc at mixed practices.  I began going to these practices as well.

It has now been two months.  I’ve missed few practices since I started.  I’ve lost nearly 10 pounds.  I’ve gained a ton of endurance.  Nobody has told me to pack it up and quit, but a lot of people have offered words of encouragement and great tips for training and paddling better.  The rookie that started the same day as me has not returned since, but I am starting to really feel like I’m a part of something big.  I could go to the national or world championships!

You Can Do Eeeeet!

June 23rd, 2008

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In my last post, I described recent climbing trip, in so many words, as a life-changing experience.  Perhaps every excursion is a journey of self-realization (having only been on two trips 10 years apart, I don’t really know), but this one certainly was for me.  You see, I got up on that rock face.  I made the obvious moves of varying difficulty.  Then I got to a crux.  A place where the next move is very hard, not obvious, potentially out my reach.  I’d make a few tentative touches, maybe even gingerly try a move without really committing to it.  I’d announce that I was coming down, the people on the ground would groan in disapproval, then I’d give it a shot.

There’s something to this, something more than just being fatigued or my fear of heights.  Both play a factor, but at the end of the day I am no stranger to dangling from a rope and I know the safety equipment will catch me.  Why not just jump for it and see what happens?  Nothing really happens if you fail.

Yet I could not really bring myself to try these tough moves, at least not without someone encouraging me to do so.  Maybe there’s a psychological word for this, but I’m just going to come right out and call it like I see it, and I’m calling it “fear of failure.”  I wasn’t scared of falling, or scraping my legs on the rock face - I had already done that plenty of times.  I was just plain scared of not being able to do it.

I don’t know why I would have this fear.  My parents always encouraged me to try pretty much anything I wanted.  It didn’t matter if I was good at it as long as I tried my hardest and honored my commitments.  It’s not like I ever got any sort of consternation or punishment from my parents if I didn’t do well at something.  The only think I can think is that I didn’t fail enough?  Generally I either was successful in an endeavor, or at least not unsuccessful (say, getting a supporting role in a show when I wanted a leading role - I still got a part) so maybe, not having much experience with actual failure I’m afraid to have to face it?  I’m really not sure.  It really doesn’t matter.

I started noticing the fear of failure motif in other areas of my life.  Putting off tough projects around the house.  Not going to auditions.  Not going to events in the city.  Maybe not EVERYTHING I chicken out on is due to fear of failure, but I am starting to think that a lot of it is…and even if it’s not the solution is the same.  If I can recognize that something I think I don’t want to do (climbing 200′ multipitch, for example) is because I’m scared of not being able to do it and talk myself into doing it (or get someone else to encourage me), it doesn’t actually matter if it really is because I’m scared of not being able to do it.  I need to recognize the signs, motivate myself or when necessary get someone to motivate me.

And that’s what I’m doing.  About 2 weeks before Footloose opened and I was sketchy on some of the dances, unsure about having all of my costumes, and even unclear on some of the music, I found myself dreading rehearsals.  I couldn’t quit (cf. statement above about honoring your commitments…one thing I could never do with impunity was quit a show in rehearsals or a sports team in mid-season), so I was toughing it out, but why was I feeling like this?  That’s fear of failure.  So I got myself in gear, reviewed the music, worked with Gavin to get the dance shored up, talked to Sean and Ashley about the costumes to make sure everything was ok…problem solved.  Tech week was strenuous but I didn’t dread it.

I’ll have more on fighting fear of failure in my next entry…I’m trying to stop having my posts be so darn long! 

If it’s not curling, it’s climbing.

May 21st, 2008

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Upon noticing that I listed “climbing” as an interest on Facebook, one of my curling teammates (Vince) let slip that he also likes to climb, was planning a trip to “The Gunks” in May and that I was welcome to come along.  After confirming I could make the time and spend the money, I was in agreement.  My usual climbing partner MikeFitz’s hefty travel schedule precluded his participation.  We also had a couple of Vince’s friend’s cancel for various reasons, such that by the time we left there were 4 climbers in all.

We were scheduled to leave from Vince’s house at 6PM Friday.  In a somewhat odd occurrence for me, I managed to be the first to arrive!  Chez Vince is like a classic city house.  It’s really cool.  Almost makes me want to live in town.  At this time I was made aware of Vince’s distaste for planning/preparing too far in advance.  He had not even started packing when I arrived!  I was particularly amazed because given the weather forecast with highs in the low 50s and potential for rain, I really struggled with what to pack!  In any case, Vince went to gather up his gear.  Krista and I watched Top Chef.  Soon after Mike arrived (not MikeFitz, obviously).  Blake was biking over from someplace not far away, but it was taking him a long time to arrive!  Since it was nice out, we sat out on the stoop as we waited.  He arrived around 7PM and after stowing his bike and packing up Mike’s car, we were off.

We arrived in New Paltz sometime near 10PM and checked into the hotel (which was described by Mike as something of a dive, but evidently he has not stayed at the Bridgeport Holiday Inn!) and headed over to the nearby College Diner for some dinner.  We found the Diner and vicinity to be buzzing with activity on account of a Sheriff’s van across the street with lights on, a small crowd of gawkers, and what appeared to be a person lying on the side of the road.  More emergency equipment was quickly arriving.  I later confirmed this in the news, but a man was hit by a car and killed in the 20-30 minutes between us passing that very intersection and returning from the hotel!  Yikes!

Great dinner of souvlaki and some lemon meringue pie.  We didn’t loaf around the Diner too long since it was getting on midnight and we had to meet our guides around 8:30 the next morning, so it was back to the hotel for some rest.

Saturday morning we awake to overcast, perhaps a little light rain, a little cool.  Not the best climbing weather but apparently good enough to go out and play.  We began a morning ritual which consists of picking up snacks and lunch at the deli across from the Diner prior to heading to the EMS Climbing School where we get breakfast at the hip little cafe next door.  It’s actually a strange little setup with the EMS “store” occupying a tiny little bag hung off the side of the cafe.  I wonder which came first?  I had a breakfast wrap consisting of eggs, sausage, cheese, avocado.  Avocado makes everything better.  I know it’s something of a hallmark of “California Cuisine,” but in a sort of eco-friendly-looking cafe I have some doubts about the sustainability of using avocados in everything.

Our guides were Bill and Jay.  They were classic outdoorsy guys.   Stubbly beards.  Tough looking and fit.  Easygoing attitudes.  After picking up whatever gear we needed that was provided with the rental (the rental includes pretty much everything but most of us have some or all of our own gear) and signing away our lives, we hopped in the car and our adventure had truly begun!

It was a short drive to the parking area and a short hike to our first climbing site.  A wall of climbs with names like “Flake” and “Boston.”  Vince and Mike had already taken a few guided trips here and were learning how to set up top rope anchors.  One of their goals for the trip was to cement their knowledge by setting up the anchors under the supervision of the guides to be sure they were doing it correctly.  Blake was going to stay on the ground with Bill for some basics on tying in and belaying.  Since I already knew these items, I figured it would be good to go up top and start learning how to set up anchors.  I followed Jay, Vince and Mike over to a rocky outcropping where they began climbing up without any sort of protection.  I gave it a try, but quickly determined that my running shoes, my fear of heights/falling and the wet slippery rock surfaces were just too risky.  Note to self - get some hiking/canyoning shoes.  I still might not have gone up, but it would have helped!

Back at “base camp,” Bill had pretty much given Blake a solid review and was preparing to lead climb up to the top to set up a top rope anchor for us on “Flake,” so-named because of a large stone flake at the top of a deep crevice in the rock face.  At this particular moment in time, the crevice behind the flake was also serving as a downspout for the rain and resembled a fairly persistent waterfall.  Bill had little trouble making it up and after a few minutes called down that we were clear to climb.  I decided to give it a shot.

Starting out was pretty easy, although I found myself out of practice, particularly in remembering to breathe.  The rain-soaked rock was VERY cold and numbed the fingers very quickly.  I began to ascend the outside of the crevice but ran out of good holds.  I called up to Bill for advice and he said he had tried the same thing to avoid getting wet but ended up going inside the crevice.  So that’s what I did.  The experience of climbing directly up a waterfall was really neat.  And also completely soaked me.  After trying a couple different things I realized that I was panic-breathing and could not feel my fingers and determined this was a good time to return to dry ground.  Blake tried next with similar results. The rest of the team was still at work on the anchors, so we each gave it another go without much luck.

Bill then took us up to the top via a different and less risky-seeming path to see how things were going up there and to give us a chance to rappel.  At the top, we found an amusing sight in the form of Mike standing ankle deep in a big cold puddle as Jay showed Mike how to use a prussik as a failsafe when rappelling.  Bill called me over to Flake, had me tie the belay rope to my harness and hook my ATC to the rappel rope.  I hadn’t rappelled in 10+ years.  When I did it in high school I remember taking a long time to convince myself to step backwards off the ledge and was concerned that I’d have the same problem.  Apparently my mind at least remembered that I felt safe once I had my weight fully transferred, and I actually had little trouble doing it again.  A short trip down (only 30 feet or so) and I was soon joined by the others.

We now had ropes set up at Flake, Boston, and another route in between with a big crack, which Vince and Mike both tried but could not even figure out how to start!  We turned our attention to Boston.  This was a climb that most of us should have been able to do, but the rain and cold really had a huge impact.  There is a crack towards the top that should be easy to wedge your body in and shimmy up. but it just wasn’t working.  As we worked on this climb, Jay disappeared to find some dry stone to use.  After conquering most of Boston, I realized that my toes were numb and put my socks and sneakers back on to warm up.  Of course for my next climb I’d have to put my soaked shoes back on, but at least I got temporary relief.

By the time we moved to the next site, it was after noon.  The rain had stopped but it was still cold, foggy and overcast.  We had a quick bite to eat and then walked back up the trail to find that Jay had set up a pretty impressive toprope anchor with 6 or 8 SLCDs and a bunch of webbing on top of this huge freestanding boulder with a pretty serious overhang.  He assured us that under normal climbing conditions “Benign Behemoth” was only like 5.5 or something and outfitted us with some beta on how to manage the climb.  We each took a turn with limited success until on his second attempt, Vince found the hold hidden deep in the crack that Jay told us about and was able to make it all the way to the top!  It was nice to finally have some success!

Not wanting to expend all of our time and energy on one climb (and wanting to get some more practice setting up toprope anchors), we left the anchor set up at Benign Behemoth so we could come back to it (there wasn’t exactly a line of people waiting on an unpleasant day) and went to set a couple others.  The hike to the anchor points involved more scrambling upon sketchy terrain.  I kept my climbing shoes on this time, which helped, but I was still very nervous making some of the moves, especially while trying to carry a rope with me at the same time.  But, we made it up and got to work setting up two more anchors.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the entire process because the main part of the anchor I helped with was set up down a steep incline that Jay and Mike rappelled down to.  There was so much gear tied up at Benign Behemoth that they almost ran out of supplies, but Jay said he had found a way to make it work.  This had Blake and I exchanging concerned glances :-)  The original plan was to rappel down to start climbing, but because of the anchor set up, it was going to be challenging, so we climbed down the same sketchy way we climbed up.

Back at the bottom, Vince was just finishing one of the climbs and had made short work of it.  I tied in and started climbing.  The rock was a little bit drier.  A little bit less cold.  It started to feel more like what I remembered climbing to feel like, although still not great.  I felt pretty solid until I got to one of the cruxes where I just wasn’t sure where to grab or step.  I was feeling more confident, though, so I tried some bolder moves even though they were not successful and sent me sliding down the rock face.  After the third or fourth fall, I looked at my hand and saw blood streaked down my finger.  I had a blood blister and skin flap on my left ring finger, and a cut on my middle finger as well!  Climbing is a rough sport, so I decided to give it one more shot, but my finger hurt and I think the blood had made the hold I was using slippery.  I decided to throw in the towel again.  It was getting late and this was my last climb of the day…I had been blanked on every climb.  Not that the other guys except Vince did all that much better, but it was frustrating to not complete any of the climbs we tried.  Before we left, Mike made numerous attempts on Benign Behemoth and almost made it.  I think maybe Blake did make it at some point, but things are a little fuzzy.

We gathered up the gear and headed back to the EMS Climbing School to drop everything off, then it was back to the hotel where we warmed up and cleaned up before heading into town for dinner.  Dinner was at Bacchus where they have a lengthy beer list and the sort of oddly-varied menu you would expect to find in a town like New Paltz (which, despite sounding like a classic backwater town, resembles New Hope, PA in many ways).  I had a tuna quesadilla which had big chunks of grilled tuna in it and was very good.

The next morning we repeated much the same ritual.  The weather was similar to Saturday, but the weather reports suggested that the rain was done for good and we might even see the sun at some point.  The day before, Vince had picked up a route guide and had spent quite a bit of time thumbing through it before going to bed, identifying routes that had relatively low difficulty levels but high ratings for being “fun.”  The first route was the Northern Pillar, which is said to be the first recorded route climbed in The Gunks.  The book described it as a multipitch climb but since a big part of the trip was for Vince and Mike to firm up their anchor skills for topropes, I figured we would probably find a walkup and set up a toprope from one of the belay ledges.

The hike to the base of the Northern Pillar was awful!  The guides said it involved 200 stairsteps.  I wasn’t counting, but it was a lot, and the stairs are rough-hewn and windy.  Vince and I both had to stop to rest a few times on that climb up.  By the time we got to the “base camp” at the foot of the Pillar, my heart was pounding so hard I was starting to worry that I was going to need medical attention!  I pulled off some of my layers and one of the guides announced that if we had pocketable food or a water bottle we could clip to our harnesses, we should bring these as we would not return to the base camp for 3 or 4 hours!  Holy crap!  They were actually going to take us all the way up the multipitch route!  Winded from the hike and short on confidence after the previous day’s climbing failures, the thought of spending the next 4 hours fighting with the rocks did not seem nearly as appealing as, say, spending the afternoon napping under a tree!  Along with this, I had never done a multipitch before and had no idea what would happen if I got halfway up and realized I was in way over my head!  Would I have to wait, clinging to a narrow belay ledge for the rest of the group to get to the top and then come back down for me?  I told Vince I was holding him responsible for whatever happened up there.

“When you get to the top of this thing,” he said, “you’re going to thank me.  It’s going to be great.”  Vince is an optimist.  That’s why we like him.  In order to keep things moving, we were going to ascend in two trios consisting of Vince and Mike with Bill leading and the other Blake and me with Jay leading.  Jay was taking a somewhat easier path up the first stage.  Jay tied Blake’s rope to my harness and I put him on belay and he went up the climb that was so easy for him, he had to remind himself to put in some protection devices so that we could practice using them!  Once he got to the top and set up an anchor point, it was my turn to start.  I began climbing.  The route was actually fairly easy and the surface was not cold and wet as it had been the day before, so my fingers did not go numb.  It felt more like “climbing.”  I also reminded myself to keep breathing.  Within a few minutes, I had made it to the ledge.  Jay hooked me to the anchor and then Blake started.

The belay ledge was fairly long but only about 3 feet wide.  Perhaps 40 feet off the ground, I had a view over the valley where the fog was slowly lifting away that one part of me wanted to enjoy and the other part of me wanted to shut out because it reminded me that I was now on this route for the long haul and if the height made me nervous now, it was only going to get worse!  Over the next few minutes as the rest of the group made it up to the ledge it became more crowded and more chaotic.  With Blake and I secured, Jay began the second stage since all of us would have to share some of the same route.  In addition to everything else, I now had to belay Jay while everyone on the ledge was climbing over me trying to get situated!  I did my best not to move around too much and keep an eye on Jay as he went. 

Jay made it to the next belay ledge entirely too quickly before my turn to climb came.  Getting started is always a hard part for me, and my fear of being stuck in the middle of the climb made it even harder.  After a couple tentative touches, I found a hold that seemed steady and I started to go up.  The second stage was a little bit harder than the first, but for the most part I again had little trouble.  When I got to what qualified as the belay ledge (a dubious looking rock formation that really just looked like a stack of big rocks in a corner behind a tree) and was clipped in, I was actually feeling a little better.  I was starting to realize that maybe yesterday’s debacles really were caused by the weather conditions and not so much that I just suck at climbing!  The fog was really starting to lift over the valley and Jay remarked that in the next few minutes we would probably be able to see the watchtower on the cliff called Skytop across the valley, and sure enough by the time Blake joined me on the ledge, we could see the whole thing and the view was quickly becoming breathtaking.  I was not nearly as worried now.  The third stage looked to be the hardest portion especially since part of it involved a corner that had rain water flowing down it, but it was fairly short, too.

Jay went up, took up my rope, and I set out.  Again I had a little trouble getting started, although now it was more honest uncertainty and less raw self-doubt.  Blake pointed out a couple of footholds and off I went.  Definitely a harder climb, but still nothing outrageous, I climbed fairly smoothly until I made a pretty tough move right near a piece of protection that Jay had set.  You see, as the middle climber it was my job when I passed a piece of protection to unclip my rope and clip Blake’s rope in.  But in my concentration on the challenging move I had made, I completely forgot to switch the ropes…that is until I got to the end of the rope and suddenly found something holding me back!  I now had to awkwardly reach down to switch the ropes.  This maneuver cost me a lot of energy, but I still managed to make it up to the top where I then had to crawl under a low overhang to get to Jay’s anchor on a fairly wide cliff. I was able to sit on a large boulder and watch the view while Blake made his way up.  I was very excited that I had finished the third stage and finally had some confidence back.  There was a brief scramble up another 10 feet or so and then we were at the top, some 200 feet above our base camp.  You could walk back a little ways and there was another big rock that you could climb to get a great view in all directions.  It was amazing.  Blake, Mike and I hung out up there for a few minutes for a snack before wandering back to where Vince and the guides were discussing our descent. 

The plan was a downclimb of the last descent followed by a single rappel down all 200′.  Jay declared this to be one of the most exciting rappel opportunities of The Gunks.  It’s a long descent from an overhang that leaves you dangling out in space for most of the ride.  By the time I got to the boulder, Vince was trying to get himself situated and Blake and Mike were having a chuckle at his expense as he fought back the fear that comes along with stepping backwards off the edge of a cliff high above the ground.  Your body fights you the whole way!  He made it down safely, though.  When he got near the ground, Bill commented to Jay that the safety rope was a *little* too short and switched to a longer one.  Probably a good thing Vince wasn’t around to hear that, although he was never in any real danger.  Mike went next and then came my turn.  I was REALLY nervous getting tied in, as you had to shimmy around the side of the boulder and stand on a narrow ledge while you tried to pull up the ropes to get them into your rappel device - twin 200′ ropes are HEAVY.  Once I got everything clipped in, though, I was able to channel my experience in high school of a similar rappel situation and had a surprisingly easy time getting my weight transferred.  The twin ropes and the high-friction side of my ATC-XP actually provided so much friction that I felt like I had to actually work the ropes through it as I went!  At the end of the lovely, if too short ride, we sat down for lunch.  “Was it awesome?” asked Vince.  “Yeah…you were totally right.”

After eating lunch, Blake took off for a jog.  Our guides went on lead and set up topropes at “Beginner’s Delight” and “Snooky’s Return.”  Mike started on the much harder latter route while Vince jumped on Beginner’s Delight.  There are two approaches to it, one up along a big crack and the other up on sort of a dihedral.  Vince took the more challenging crack route and in the upper section made a number of conscious choices to do the “harder” of his options and he made short work of all of them.  This was a pretty high toprope compared to what I had been doing at the gym, btw.  After Vince came down I was next.  I began working the crack route but got to a point that I had remembered Vince passing, but the handhold that he used was too high for me to reach.  I weighed a number of options but there weren’t any ways to hang down so that I could perhaps jump for it.  With some encouragement from Vince and Jay, I gave it a shot, but nothing doing.  Jay had me swing along the wall to the dihedral and I was able to make it up this.  There were a couple other points on the climb where I ran out of ideas and, not really being in the mood to fall a lot, announced that I wanted to come down only to have the people on the ground groan at my giving up too easily.  When they groaned I tried to make the move and was actually successful - I made it to the top of this climb!

Mike had spent a lot of time sketching on the much harder Snooky’s Return but had reached a problem that was continuing to elude him and tire him out.  We switched places and he began work on Beginner’s Delight (which he finished) while Vince started on the other.  This was a very fun climb to watch Vince work on.  Rated 5.8 it is probably numerically at the top end of climbs that he could complete at the time.  It took him a couple of goes to get past where Mike got stuck but then he just kept making these seemingly dicey moves and they just kept sticking!  When he got to the second crux, an overhang with a little cave under it, he managed to clamber into the cave and found himself lying belly-down in the crack with nowhere else to go!  But he managed to shimmy back into an upright position and found an undercling on the cave roof that sprung him over.  A few minutes later he had done the climb and was on his way back down.  It was a great job.

I tried it next.  I was not expecting to get as far as Vince had, but I found that a lot of my gym climbing muscle memory was finally starting to return and seemed applicable on a lot of the holds - in particular, finding a solid high foothold and then, ignoring the lack of a good handholds, standing straight up without losing my balance.  I made decent progress but eventually found a spot that I couldn’t seem to stretch my leg high enough to reach even though Vince had done it and pointed out that the motion of stepping the left leg up that high was pretty much a variation on the curling slide position!  I guess I need to start doing that stretch again!

Blake rejoined us and we packed up and headed home.  It was an awesome trip…great to climb “real” rocks for the first time in over 10 years, and in many ways another life-changing experience.  I also realized that climbing in the gym really doesn’t adequately prepare you for the challenges of outdoor climbing.  The holds aren’t obvious.  The feeling of danger is a lot greater.  It’s just totally different.  Hopefully I can get some practice in before the next trip!

I didn’t take a ton of pics since the weather on day 1 was bad and I didn’t think hauling my camera up 200 feet on day 2 was a good idea, but the pics I do have are in the Gallery (click the thumbnail).  Those of you who know Vince can also find pics on his Facebook page and Blake has posted his pics here.


The Linux Clock Is Ticking…plus…Content?!

April 14th, 2008

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Faithful readers will recall that over a year ago when my computer went belly-up, I decided it was time to switch to linux full time since I had a working linux box.  A few months ago, I also tried to run linux on my work laptop figuring I could use a VM for anything that *had* to run in Windows.  I had to abandon this effort because my on-board wireless simply would not work under Ubuntu.  My mantra for linux has been “It’s not ready for prime time.”  And it’s still not.

But I have good news: It’s about ready for Final Jeopardy or perhaps the beginning of Wheel Of Fortune (here in Phillyland, Jeopardy runs at 7PM and Wheel runs at 7:30 - just shy of the elusive 8PM start of prime time.

I had been using CentOS mainly because I’d been using it at work so at least had some familiarity with it.  Once I got through the somewhat ridiculous hurdles involved with setting the display resolution, getting wireless working and getting my printer going, I found that it was working passably and I only REALLY had to launch the Windows VM to access my MP3 player and print to my HiTi photo printer.  But there were some tasks that I simply hadn’t been able to master to my satisfaction such as ripping CDs and even playing MP3s.  Every so often I would feel like perhaps it was my lucky to try my hand at some of these…and then spent a few frustrated hours accomplishing nothing.

Recently, I started to think the perhaps the problem wasn’t so much that linux is not ready for prime time (which is still true), but more that CentOS is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and neither of these products was intended to be used as a “workstation” OS - they were supposed to be server OSes!  As a result, there is not great support in the major software repositories for things like MP3 players.  You end up with a lot of dependency problems and trying to compile from source isn’t much easier.

So with the release of the new “Hardy Huron” version of Ubuntu imminent, I decided that now might be a good time to give the prior version, “Gutsy Gibbon” a shot.  And it’s close…so close to prime time.  Many pieces of it really did “just work.”  In CentOS my audio was barely audible.  I thought it was my speakers, but Ubuntu came pre-loaded with drivers and a mixer that allows me to actually increase the volume to an audible level.  The display came with the correct resolution automatically.  Wireless is still fairly weak.  In my case, the driver auto-detected just fine, but using the built-in network-manager app I could not connect at all and it would lock the card up.  But if I configure my wireless settings manually, it works fine.  Since this is a non-portable computer, it’s not even a hassle.  Getting my printer working was a tiny bit sketchy, but because of the large userbase for Ubuntu, it was fairly easy to figure out how to install it.  At this point, I’m pretty much where I was with CentOS…but it was much less frustrating.  My only complaint right now is that it keeps crashing randomly, but this could be a variety of things.  Also, my KVM switch causes all sorts of strange behavior from the mouse.

But things are progressing nicely for linux and Ubuntu.  In fact, at this point if you don’t have any incompatible hardware, I might even go so far as to say that if you had a friend or relative that didn’t have any non-linux specific needs and isn’t going to poke around too much and screw something up, you could probably give them an Ubuntu machine and they’d be pretty satisfied!  The clock is ticking towards prime time, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Hardy Huron (or is it Heron?) has to offer.  Hopefully it’s a simple upgrade, too!

This upgrade also forced me to start catching up on my picture updates.  I had no really sensible way to back up my data for the re-install, so I had to use my camera to back everything up to SD-card (note to self: get an SD reader).  In restoring my data, I also loaded a stack of pics to the PC that had languished on my camera for many months, and I noticed that Ubuntu comes pre-loaded with something called “F-Spot” which is a photo-management program.

I never felt the need to have something like Picasa, but since it was there I figured I would at least give it a try…and let me tell you…I love it!  It gives you an intuitive way to browse and sort your pictures, offers some light-weight editing right in the UI and interfaces directly with GIMP for heavier editing AND it automatically preserves the original so that I no longer have to do this myself.  In fact, I used to upload the originals, make a new copy of each original, then edit those copies and sort them into various folders for pictures that would be published, rejected, etc.  Now I can simply tag them accordingly in F-Spot and away I go.  You can also tag them with people, places, etc, so in just a click I can see all the pics of curling, my dog, or both!  Oh, and it also has a handy plugin to upload directly to both my gallery here AND to Facebook!

So inspired was I by F-Spot that I immediately began uploading pictures.  Those of you on Facebook should note that everything posted on Facebook will also be posted here, but not the reverse.  Basically if the subject matter does not involve Facebook friends, I will just post them here.

Here we go…there may be commentary posted later on for some of these sets.  Clicking the pic will take you to the corresponding gallery.

Our 2008 Saint Patrick’s Day party

The Jeff Harris Curlathon…a benefit for our friend who suffered a spinal cord injury last Summer.  You might see a couple local legends in this gallery.

A rugby game…a few years ago my brother-in-law (pictured here) spotted a sign that read “Give Blood…Play Rugby” and he has been playing ever since for Whitehorse Rugby Football Club.

There are still some curling posts to come…and even more pics.

Stay tuned!