Monday, October 31, 2005

You know you're an adult when... buy a house.

From PV31W:

Shopping for a house is fun.
Buying a house is not fun.

Envisioning one's stuff in the purchased house is fun.
Actually moving the stuff is not fun.

Dreaming of decorating a house is fun.
Actually handing over the cash required is not fun.

Getting a paycheck is fun.
Working for the Man is, well, not so much fun...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Even More on the Importance of Philosophy...

I just finished reading a short book called Light in the Shadow of Jihad. In a reference to Jefferson's great statement in the Declaration of Independence...
We hold these truths to be [sacred] self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

...this is what Ravi Zacharias has to say:
That one sentence sets America apart from most of the nations of the earth. Our value is not derived from government benevolence or from the mercies of democracy. Democracy and individual dignity derive from the transcendent reality of a Creator. Take away the Creator, and we are at the mercy of the powers of the moment.

This is vital to our understanding for the future. We can debate from now till the end of the world whether America is a Christian nation. The certainty is this: America was not founded on an Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist worldview, however valuable some of their precepts might be. If we do not see this, we do not see the fundamental ideas that shaped the ethos of the American people. In that sense, bin Laden has a better understanding of us than we have of ourselves. Only within the Christian framework could a nation have been conceived that recognizes that God Himself has bestowed intrinsic dignity upon us. We are not the result of natural causes, but of a supernatural one. We are individuals with dignity in essence; and freedom, even with its risks, has been endowed upon us by our Creator.

The book also includes an interesting quote from George Washington's farewell address:
Of all the disputations and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness-- These finest props of duties of men and citizens... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on the minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience, both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

What Has God Made Oprah Good At?

MSNBC is doing a series of articles called When Women Lead and one of the articles includes an interview with Oprah Winfrey that I thought was pretty interesting:

Success is a magnifying glass on your personality. Who you are just becomes more intense. The real beauty of having material wealth is that you don't have to worry about paying the bills and you have more energy to be concerned about the things that matter. How do I accelerate my humanity? How do I use who I am on earth for a purpose that's bigger than myself? How do I align the energy of my soul with my personality and use my personality to serve my soul? My answer always comes back to self. There is no moving up and out into the world unless you are fully acquainted with who you are. You cannot move freely, speak freely, act freely, be free —unless you are comfortable with yourself.

So, you might be asking, what is her purpose that's bigger than herself?

Right now, I'm incredibly excited about my work in South Africa. I'm going to change the future for thousands and thousands of girls because I'm going to give them an education. I'm going to go out into the villages, into the rural areas, the forgotten places, and find the girls who have the potential to excel and be leaders in the world. I'm going to create a leadership academy. I believe that the future of Africa depends upon the future of its girls and women. That's the only thing that's going to turn that continent around.

I feel blessed to have a platform that allows me to reach millions of people every day with my show and my magazine. I'm often inspired by the work we do. Recently on our show, I asked viewers to help me track down child predators. Within 48 hours, we had captured two of the men we featured. As a victim of child molestation, this was big for me and for millions of others. When you can use your voice in a way that really speaks to people, it resonates. Whether it's a school or a book or just an idea. That's what fun is. That's what living really is. Living with a capital L.

I think that Oprah has figured out what God has made her good at.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What Has God Made Me Good At?

Rabbi Gellman has written another great article called What God Made Us Good At, which has provided me with lots of things to ponder this evening...

Some extraordinary adults remember what all ordinary children know: the key to life is to love what God made you good at and to do what you love.

Knowing what God made you good at has nothing to do with the job you work at to pay the rent. So when you know the secret of doing what you love, it does not necessarily mean that you will get a job doing it. There are not that many paying jobs for good listeners or good fight-enders or good takers of things apart or good bedtime-story readers or loyal friends or good feelers of the kinship of sorrow. Occasionally you can snag a job doing exactly what God made you good at-- —I thank God every day that this happened to me, but that is the life equivalent of winning the lottery. The odds on this happening are very long.

Actually, fortunately for me, there are paying jobs for "good takers of things apart" and I happen to have one. I'm an engineer. I get paid to put things together, take things apart, and even to break things!

So for those of you who feel trapped in jobs you hate, or in classes where you are being forced to study subjects you hate, take hope from this secret of life. Your schoolwork or your job or your obligations to make lunch for the kids every single day need not stop you from doing what you love today. Your life is not only your job or your grade in school, or your family obligations. Your life is fuller than that, broader than that, thicker than that, more soaring than that. Your life is doing what God made you good at. If even part of what God made you good at is used in your job, hooray, but the odds are that what you are good at spills over past your job and into your life. And no matter how crappy part of your life is, the other part, the part where you do what you love, can be glorious.

I've been there too, trapped in a job that I hated, which was literally giving me ulcers. Fortunately for me, at the same time, the rest of my life was being filled up with things that I loved-- ski patrol training, learning to SCUBA dive, and falling in love with my future husband. (And yes, I believe that God was looking out for me through all of that.)

During one of my ask-the-rabbi sessions with the fourth grade, one girl asked me, "“I don't know what God made me good at. How can I find out?"” My advice to her is my advice to you if you don't know. First, ask your parents. They know you best, though they are not always honest. They sometimes will tell you with all the love in their hearts, "“Honey, God made you good at being a sports agent."” If they tell you that, then go ask your friends. They don't know you as well as your family, but they're more honest. If family and friends do not tell you clearly what they think God made you good at, then ask yourself this question: "When am I most happy?"” The times you are most happy are the times you are doing what you love and what you love is always what God made you good at.

So, as I've already said, I enjoy my job. But here's the "million-dollar" question: If I won the lottery, would I still go to work at the same job every day? In all honesty, probably not. I like the challenges though-- I like trouble-shooting, finding a root cause, analyzing data, evaluating potential solutions, and proving that everything works. (However, I'm not such a big fan of the more difficult challenges of getting out of bed early in the morning and arriving at work by 8am. Oh, and I loathe reviewing patents.) And unfortunately, it's just not the type of job that you can do as a part-time volunteer. It's more of a 40-hour-work-week-salaried-position thing. So I'm not sure what I would do.

What about you? What would you do if you won the lottery and never needed to worry about another paycheck?

Now, my other main love (after my husband & family & friends) is skiing, and not just skiing (although that, in itself, would be enough to qualify as an obsession) but ski patrolling too. I've already described some of the things that I love about skiing in a previous post, so I'll just add a couple more things that I love about ski patrolling:

  • Patrolling requires many of the same skills that I use in my particular field of engineering-- It provides lots of opportunities for problem-solving, risk analysis, and decision-making, and it requires a good understanding of how the human body is supposed to work and what can go wrong. There are lots of questions that must be answered in just a few minutes time: What is the main problem/injury? What is the worst-case scenario? How can we safely get an injured person into the toboggan? Transferred to a bed in the aid room? Out of the aid room and into a car? (Oh, and as a bonus, we also get to make splints out of bubble-wrap, cardboard, and duct tape, which are 3 items on the Top 10 list of favorite engineering materials.)

But there are also things that I enjoy about patrolling specifically because it's different from my day job:

  • For one thing, it's very physical-- Skiing with a loaded toboggan is tough enough, but there's also a lot of dragging (the toboggan) and lifting (injured people) and carrying (first aid packs & signs & power drills & gear) involved. It's definitely the opposite of a desk job!

  • Patrolling also involves a lot more interpersonal skills than engineering does. (Insert engineering joke here. The one about the boy and the frog princess would work in a pinch.) I am a pretty introverted person by nature, but I am forced to quickly overcome that when I'm working with someone who is injured. And this may sound crazy, but it seems like we usually see the best side of people when they're injured and vulnerable. Last year I met a 13 year old who had severely dislocated his finger at the top of the hill, and yet he managed to walk all the way down on his own, cradling his hand with his opposite arm. He was obviously in a lot of pain, but he was a really, really brave and patient. If I had met him under "better" conditions, I might have only seen him as a crazy little hoodlum, but instead I got to see him as a trooper.

  • There's also a tremendous amount of teamwork and camaraderie within the patrol. We're all volunteers, so everyone is there because they love patrolling, not because of a paycheck. We spend a lot of time training together and working together and skiing together, and that provides a very powerful sense of community, which I believe is a critical part of God's plan for our lives.

So there's two of things that I love and that I'm good at-- Engineering and Skiing. Are there others? Maybe, probably, hopefully. I love spending time with my husband and hanging out with my friends. I love reading and learning new things. And when I pause and consider that everyone on Earth has different skills and different passions, it makes me wonder what could be accomplished if more people started applying those skills to the things that they were passionate about. There's a lot of hope rolled up into that thought. How could we change our cities? How could we change our country? How could we change our world?

Instead of ending with my own rambling, I'd rather leave you with Rabbi Gellman's (far more eloquent) conclusion...

This is what it means to be made "“in the image of God,"” (Hebrew: b'tzelem elohim.) Obviously being made in the image of God does not mean that we have a big toe just like God has a big toe. It does not mean that we are all powerful or all knowing or all good because God is all powerful, all knowing and all good. So what does it mean? The Hebrew word tzelem comes from the root word "“tzel"” which means "“shadow"” and so, we are all God's shadows. But because God has infinite attributes it stands to reason that God has infinite shadows and this means that each of us shadows a different part of God... ...Being God's shadows perfectly explains to me how we are all different and how we are all the same. God's shadow falls across our wounded world through an infinity of differently blessed lives; each shadow bearing equally the holiness of the Creator, but each shadow bearing a unique shape meant to be discovered and used to find happiness, fix the world and please God.

God gives each of us unique blessings and thus unique destinies. That is what it means to say we are all made in the image of God or to say that we all stood at Sinai. And we are all standing at Sinai right here and right now. God is looking at you, just you, to ask you, "“Did you discover what I made you good at? Are you working at what you love? And are you helping those who have not yet discovered the shape of their spiritual shadow to do what I made them good at doing?"

...God is actually speaking to you, just you, to teach you the secrets of life. God is speaking to you, just you, to lead you to the place of green pastures and still waters where you need not be afraid. God is speaking to you, just you, to teach you how every day your blessings exceed your burdens. God is speaking to you, just you, to tell you that life is too short not to do what you love...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Nature of Triage

Check out this article by Rabbi Marc Gellman, who is one of my all-time favorite columnists. His articles are always articulate, profound, and inspiring.

In our ski patrol training, we are trained in triage, but it's one of those skills that you really hope that you will never have to perform.  It is a terrifying responsibility, and the people who are making the tough calls about who to evacuate first deserve our support and recognition for their efforts and their courage.

As I see the news coverage of the hurricane this week, I have been frustrated and outraged to hear stories about people shooting at and threatening MedEvac helicopters, police, and other rescue personnel, because every helicopter that gets pulled out of service, and every police officer who turns in his badge, and every National Guard who is assigned to protect agaist looters, murderers, and rapists is one less resource that is available for the people who most desperately need immediate help to ensure their health and survival.  It breaks my heart to think that people who legitimately need aid are being deprived of if by the selfish and criminal acts of others. I have also been frustrated by the lack of evidence of people stepping up to help each other, rather than just demanding to be helped by government agencies.  Maybe that's happening, but it's sure not making it into the news, and it's rapidly eroding my faith in humanity.

But I think that Rabbi Gellman says it best:

The reason for triage decisions is the fact of limited resources. Now there is much to say about why lifesaving resources are limited in this catastrophe, but only a fool or an abject ideologue cannot grasp the fact that when the strongest possible storm hit the most vulnerable possible city, death, devastation and chaos were sure to follow in its wake no matter what the preparations for the storm. Yes, more could have been done, and nothing I say or believe ought to be construed in any way as justifying any possible malfeasance of what public officials could have or should have done ahead of this killer storm. I am particularly bewildered and outraged at the length of time it has taken to get food and water to the starving, suffering people in the convention center. As I write this on Friday, they are still in harm’s way and still suffering from the lack of the only lifesaving resource that should never be rationed and that is hope. It is a disgrace that even in the context of necessary triage decisions, they still wait in fear, hunger and thirst way too long for the time of triage to end.

However, in the end I simply refuse to blame the rescuers more than the storm that caused the need for rescue. It is not merely naive but profoundly foolish to have expected that 100,000 troops with water and food and patrol vehicles and helicopters and busses and trains and showers and shelters and electricity and bulldozers and levee-repair crews and mobile kitchens and tent cities and psychological services and identity checkers and employment services and construction crews and electrical linemen and mechanical and structural and civil engineers and architects and water-control experts and animal-removal experts could have all been set up somewhere out of the storm path but close enough to swoop in and pluck the soaking victims out of harm’s way despite the collapsed bridges and levees the minute the winds stopped blowing and minute the tide subsided without missing a heartbeat. Where have we gleaned the arrogant belief that if we suffer from a natural disaster, it must always somebody’s fault? We must all face the grim but inescapable fact that there are some times and some places where the need you face is simply greater than the resources you have at that moment or even days after that moment or even weeks after that moment, and thus agonizing decisions must be made. Triage is a way to make those decisions on the allocation of scarce lifesaving resources that does not stop the tears, but at least it stops the feeling that you did not just throw up your hands and give up.

In medical triage training, there are actually four color-coded levels that are assigned to victims of a disaster:

  • Green - The "walking wounded" who are affected, but who are at least capable of temporarily taking care of themselves.

  • Yellow - Those with significant, but not life-threatening, injuries.

  • Red - People with life-threatening injuries who need immediate attention to ensure their survival.

  • Black - People who are dead or likely to die even with aggressive medical attention. Resources are not be assigned to these victims, because you are more likely to have an impact on the outcome of the critical "reds" and "yellows" with limited resources.

If a triage system works effectively, it allows aid to reach the critical "Reds" first (i.e. premature babies and hospital patients and the people trapped in their attics surrounded by toxic water) then the "Yellows" (i.e. sick and disabled, young children and babies) and finally the "Greens" (i.e. the thousands of people who will need help rebuilding their homes and lives in the coming months). In the case of this hurricane, many of the the "Greens" are folks that self-evacuated before the hurricane hit, but there are also lots of able-bodied people who just no longer have access to any means of transportation. In triage, it is often necessary to ask "Green" patients to help provide assistance with the "Yellows" and "Reds", and I suspect that in this case there are plenty of people who could be helping their fellow evacuees instead of complaining about why no one is helping them.

I also think that anyone caught committing a crime that injures or endangers other people or causes precious resources to be diverted away from true victims of this disaster-- by threatening rescue workers, destroying property, looting (of non-survival-essential goods), murdering, or raping-- should immediately be designated as a "Black" level for triage, meaning that no resources whatsoever should be wasted on evacuating them. They should be left in the flooded city to fend for themselves without food, water, or shelter. If triage is an efficient way of administering aid, it may also be an efficient way of administering justice.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Brunelleschi's Dome

I'm sure that there are a lot of great things to see and do in Florence, but we came for one reason-- to see the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo. The church is one of the jewels of the Italian Renaissance, and is a wonder of architecture of any age. It was, and still is, the largest masonry dome ever built-- bigger than the Pantheon, the US Capitol building, and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It may very well be the largest dome that will ever be constructed using bricks and mortar, since modern buildings with large open spaces are built using steel and lighter space-age materials.

The dome was engineered by one man, Filippo Brunelleschi, and he also created several new types of construction equipment that were essential for building the dome. Like the Roman Forum & the Sistine Chapel, I became interested in seeing this landmark because of a book-- In this case, the book is Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, who is also the author of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest at all in architecture or engineering.

One of the things that I found interesting is that, during the Renaissance, Italians had a very low opinion of the "flying buttresses" prevalent elsewhere in Europe. They viewed the buttresses as a sort of ugly scaffolding technique. And actually, that's exactly what they are-- Well, ugly is up for debate, but they're definitely a structural crutch. The Gothic style was focused on bringing lots of natural light into buildings, primarily by creating high, vaulted ceilings and adding lots of windows. But high walls filled with windows would not have been strong enough to resist the outward thrust created by the arches that were used to construct the roofs, so flying buttresses were added to help provide extra resistance against that thrust. (As walls get taller, they also become less capable of resisting outward thrust.) While Italians did incorporate Gothic-style arches and windows into their churches, they resisted using flying buttresses, making their great churches significantly different from the cathedrals of England & France. (In this case, they did wind up having to implement a different sort of crutch. In the photos below, look for the black iron bars running across the vault. These tension members were added (per Brunelleschi's suggestion) after the main vault was completed, because the walls started to show signs of outward movement.)

Brunelleschi's challenge was to create a massive, octagonal, Gothic-arch-style dome that could be supported by the walls of the church. Fortunately, he happened to be a genius capable of the task, and so his dome still stands today, an architectural masterpiece in the heart of Florence.

The facade of Santa Maria del Fiore - Every inch of the marble is either intricately carved or inlaid with green or pink marble accents. Up close, the elaborate carvings look like they're made from confectioner's icing and twisted sticks of hard-candy.

We started our day by checking out of our hotel and reclaiming our car so that we could stash our luggage in its trunk. Then we had to find a place to park the car, which took a while. After that, we set off on foot for the Piazza della Duomo. We stopped at a pastry shop along the way, and sat on a bench outside the church to eat our breakfast. When the gypsies and the Asian-scarf/shawl-vendor-ladies became too much of a nuisance, we decided to get in line. We weren't really sure what we were getting in line for, but that's what you do when you're a tourist in Italy... When you arrive at some famous, amazing site, you get in line. Sometimes it works out the way you were expecting, and sometimes it doesn't. I mention this because a couple of young Italian women approached us while we were in the line, and this is how the conversation went:
Woman #1: "Parlate Italiano?"
Me: "No. Inglese."
Woman #1: *Something in Italian*
Me: *Shrug* "Sorry, I don't know."
Woman #1 to Woman #2: "Como dite i biglietti?"
Woman #2: "Tickets"
Woman #1 to Me: "Si. Tickets?"
Me: "I hope so!"

I'm not sure if she was asking, "Is this the line for tickets?" or "Do you know how much the tickets cost?" It didn't really matter. Even though they hadn't gotten any coherent answers, they shrugged, and got in line with the rest of us tourists, and we all wound up inside the church.

Interior of the church, facing toward the entrance.

Interior of the church, facing toward the dome.

Interior of the dome.

As it turns out, admission to the church itself is free. You do, however, have to pay a fee of 6 Euros (and get in a different line) to go up into the dome. But it was well worth the price, even after factoring in the 463 steps to the top. The climb starts off with narrow stone stairs enclosed between stone walls. The straight staircases change to very tight spiral staircases, twisting upward inside the church walls and into the drum that supports the base of the dome. The drum has two walkways that overlook the interior of the church...

(Sorry about the glare-- They've got plexiglass up along the walkway (presumably so that people can't drop things) and the sunlight from the circular windows in the drum is reflecting off the plexiglass.)

There are actually two massive octagonal domes, with a hollow cavity between them. The lower dome is what you see from inside the church, and the outer dome is the roof that you see from the outside. Both domes were built in rings, without any framing or scaffolding, supporting their own weight as they grew upward. They are capped by a lantern (a tall cylinder with windows) which allows sunlight to illuminate the church through the top of the dome.

At the base of the dome, the steps become integrated into the surface of the inner dome. They follow a path tangent to the circumference of the dome, slanting at odd angles as they wind upward through the irregular cavity between the two domes. The last set of steps turn toward the center of the dome, climbing directly up the surface of the inner dome.

Finally, there is a stone ladder leading up through the outer dome, so that you escape the cave-like cavity and arrive, blinking in the glare of the sun, at the pinnacle of the dome. From the ledge surrounding the lantern you can see all of Florence stretched out below you, a lake of orange tiled roofs surrounded by the green hills of Tuscany.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Roma to Firenze

We checked out of our hotel in Rome, took the train to the airport, and picked up our rental car. After a few minor detours, we wound up on the Via Cassia, on a quest for "a city on an island in the middle of a valley" called Bagnoregio. On our map of Italy, the city seemed to be near a large lake, so that description seemed to make sense, although we weren't able to find the city as we drove along the edge of the lake. It wasn't until we decided to start heading toward the A1 autostrada that it all became clear...

Bagnoregio is a walled city on a hill in the middle of a valley. Since we had a long drive still ahead of us, we decided not to back-track to see the city, but we stopped to have a snack and view it from a distance.

We continued on the A1 through Umbria and Tuscany to Florence. I had three small maps at Florence at my disposal, but none of them seemed to feel that street names would be at all relevant or helpful, so we wandered our way into the general area of town where I thought our hotel would be, and then we stopped and asked for directions at a little restaurant called Mr. Kebab. The guy behind the counter didn't recognize the name of the street that our hotel was on, but another woman in the restaurant did, and she said that we were very close-- less than three blocks away. She began giving me directions on how to walk there, but I told her that we had a car, and that changed everything. Sure, we were only three blocks away, but we literally couldn't get there from where we were. She indicated that we should drive south-west, away from the direction that the hotel was in, off the edge of the map, then turn north and go for several blocks until we hit a major street, then turn east and drive along the front of the old fortress for about a kilometer, then turn back south-west in the hope of getting to our hotel from that direction.

Florence is a rabbit warren of one-way alleys, all running off at acute angles, all partially clogged by parked cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. To make things more interesting, many of the piazzas are completely blocked off for cars, so the predominate mode of transportation is on two wheels-- mostly motorcyles & scooters, with an occasional bicycle. The main streets are perhaps the same width as a major six-lane road in the U.S., but there are no lane lines, and therefore no lanes of traffic, just a pile of cars maneuvering for position, with scooters and motorcycles swerving insanely in between. At a stop light, the flow of traffic resembles a landslide grinding to a halt, with cars tumbling into position like boulders, and scooters flowing into the cracks like smaller debris.

Needless to say, we wound up completely lost, and I was worried that someone was going to wind up dead-- either a scooter was going to get crunched by our car, or my husband was going to have an aneurysm. So we stopped and asked for directions again, this time from a Dutch or German guy who was walking his bike home and was extremely suspicious of approaching our car. We showed him where we wanted to be on our map, and he showed us where we actually were, and now those two spots were further apart than when we asked for directions the first time. While it was helpful to at least know where we were, he couldn't tell us how to get to our hotel, at least not by car.

We eventually figured it out and found our hotel, which wasn't exactly as advertised... It was in a old building which could have been quite nice, but the rooms were bleak at best, and there was no safe to put our valuables in while we went out to dinner, which wouldn't have been so bad if the door to the room had been secured by an actual lock system from the 20th century, instead of a skeleton key from the 1800's. There was also supposed to be a phone in our room, but when we asked at the desk, the guy told us that there was a pay phone outside on the street. (Maybe he guessed that the reason that we wanted the phone was so that we could make arrangements to check into our next hotel in Pescara a day early so that we wouldn't have to spend another night there!)

The hotel also advertised free parking, but they only meant that there was on-street parking available in front of the hotel. As we walked back from dinner, we became somewhat suspicious about the lack of cars on the street, so we studied the parking signs for clues. Based on my first French lessons from many, many years ago, I guessed that the signs were indicating that parking was not allowed on the street from midnight to 3am on Wednesday mornings, and it happened to be a Tuesday night. (I'm not sure what the Italian word for Wednesday is, but it resembles Mercredi, so there I am, thinking, "Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi... Oh, wait, I think the sign says Wednesday!") We checked with the guy behind the desk, and he confirmed that if we left the car there overnight it would certainly be towed, so we had to pay an extra 20 Euros to have someone from a garage come pick up the car and park if overnight.

And so we went to bed with not-so-fond feelings for Florence...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Vatican, Take II

We headed back to the Vatican again this morning, this time with a slightly better game plan. The guide who gave our tour through the Forum yesterday (Gastone) also conducts tours through the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica, so we got an early start to meet up with his group. It turned out to be a pretty good tour, although we didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Vatican Museums.

(To be fair though, there's no way you could even begin to see it all in one day, and honestly, I don't think we could have handled a much longer tour. The museums were really crowded, so there was a lot of shuffling and standing, which was hard on our (already tired) feet. And, since my husband and I both grew up in Ohio, (and not in say, Beijing, New York, or Rome, for example) we haven't developed a high tolerance for being bumped and jostled for hours on end.)

The line for the Vatican Museums stretched out for a couple of blocks around the city walls, and while we stood in the line, they passed out radios with headsets, so that Gastone could speak quietly into his microphone, and we didn't have to be clustered all around him in the museum. To keep us entertained, he gave a little background history on Michelangelo, Pope Julius, and the Sistine Chapel. (If you want to know why the Sistine Chapel is so acclaimed as a work of art, I recommend reading Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.)

Our tour took us through areas of the Museum dedicated to Renaissance art-- statues, tapestries, and paintings-- on the way to Raphael's rooms and the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael's fresco The School of Athens featuring great geniuses in philosophy, art, and science.

After seeing Michelangelo's work on the Sistine chapel, Raphael added a new figure to his work, front & center, beneath Plato & Aristotle. The "pensieroso" figure sitting by himself on the steps, writing, is supposed to represent Heraclitus of Ephesus, a solitary genius with a bitter temperament, but it is said to resemble Michelangelo, and people believe that Raphael added it to his work as a (grudging) tribute to Michelangelo.

The guards in the Sistine Chapel seem to get a kick out of enforcing all of the rules, which seem to be oriented around preventing you from appreciating Michelangelo's work... You can't sit down on the steps to look up at the ceiling, and you're also not allowed to stand in any one place for very long. Talking is strictly forbidden, even whispering. (But the guards continuously say "SHHH!" at 90 decibles, and they also come up behind people and clap loudly to make them move, because that's not distracting or annoying!) You are also not allowed to take photos or video, even without a flash. They say that 10,000 people a day go through the Sistine Chapel, so maybe it's unreasonable to expect that you could experience it in a relaxing environment.

St. Peter's Basilica is exactly what everyone says it is-- immense. I guess I had expected that it would be a reverent, awe-inspiring environment, but it's like most other places in Rome-- crowded and chaotic. Unfortunately, the idea that kept coming into my head as we stood in the basilica was the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the Temple. While no one was selling anything, it just doesn't even remotely feel like a religious experience.

Don't get me wrong, I am glad that I got to see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's, but I don't think I would want to go back and see them again unless I knew they wouldn't be horribly crowded. I just don't know if that's ever possible!

Tomorrow we'll head back to the airport to pick up a rental car, and then we'll leave Rome for Florence. We're planning to make a day of it, taking the scenic route and maybe stopping in one or two of the smaller towns.


Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tired Feets

On Sunday, we set off for the Vatican. But before getting on the Metro, we decided that we'd better ask what time it stopped running, so that we would know when we needed to start heading back to our hotel. We were told that the B line runs until midnight or 12:30, but the A line stops at 9pm everyday. When we said that we had been surprised by that, they explained that there was work being done on the lines at night. Aha! (Of course, in my world, that information would have been posted in big bold letters on large signs posted all over entrances and exits of the metro stations, but, fortunately or unfortunately, this is not my world.)

As it turns out, we arrived at St. Peter's as the pope was giving the Sunday blessing from the Papal Apartment. We saw his arm through the window, but from where we were standing, we couldn't see much of anything else.

OK, I take that back, we had a pretty good view of what had to be at least 100,000 people standing in St. Peter's square. The square itself is immense, and it was literally packed with people-- It was well beyond the scope of any stadium or arena that I've ever seen.

We tried to go into St. Peter's Basilica, but they were playing a little trick on the tourists by rerouting the lines mid-stream, so that the line that we were standing in wound up emptying back into the square without getting anywhere near the entrance to the church. Rather than getting into another line that might also get rerouted, we decided to go to the Vatican Museum, which, as it turns out, is closed on most Sundays, except on the Sundays when admission is free, and the other Sundays when it isn't closed or free. I'm not sure how you're supposed to know the schedule in advance, but that's how it is...

...So we hopped back on the Metro, changed lines at the Termini station, and headed to the Colosseum. To avoid the long, long lines for for tickets, we joined a guided tour, which turned out to be pretty good.

They also included a tour of the Forum area, which was even more interesting. One of the main reasons that I've wanted to come to Italy for so long was to see where the Roman Empire began. Some of my favorite books are the First Man in Rome series by Colleen McCullough. She does a fantastic job describing what life was like in the last years of the Republic. The books tell the stories of Sulla, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, and Augustus with great detail and accuracy, especially Caesar's military and political career. So I really loved seeing the ruins and imagining how it would have looked 2000 years ago.

The tour wound up on the Palantine hill, and we wandered around for a while up there. It's a relaxing, peaceful break from the crowds and noise and heat of Rome-- It's easy to understand why so many "palatial" homes have been built there over the past two millenia.

From there, we walked down to Circus Maximus, and caught the Metro back up to the Colosseum. (OK, it's only one stop, but every little bit helps when you've been walking all day! And it was essentially free since we bought three-day metro passes when we first arrived in Rome.) We found a pizzeria for dinner, and then headed back toward the Forum to see it all again at sunset. The gates were already closed, but we were able to stand and look out over everything with the full moon in the background, which was a very different experience from walking down through it the valley in the heat of the afternoon sun.

As twilight set in and the lights came up on all of the monuments and ruins, we walked back to the Metro station.

We returned to our hotel and collapsed to rest our tired feet!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

A Great Start

Our trip to Italy got off to a great start...

We were scheduled to fly overnight from Cincinnati to Amsterdam on Friday night, then on to Rome on Saturday. As we were waiting to start boarding our flight, they announced that it was overbooked and they were offering $400 travel vouchers to anyone willing to take a different flight. I said (jokingly) to my husband, "I'd be glad to get bumped if we could get on the direct flight to Rome instead of flying through Amsterdam." (I spent many, many hours searching the internet before I booked our tickets, and I couldn't get tickets on that direct flight to Rome for anywhere near a reasonable price.) My husband, not knowing how long the odds were against us, said, "Well, you should go tell the gate agents that." And so, after a little more consideration, I thought, "What the heck? They'll probably tell me that the Rome flight is full, or that it's already departed, but I may as well ask anyway..." As it turns out, I was almost right on both counts, but as my step-father always says, "Almost only counts in horse-shoes and hand-grenades."

I went up to the counter and told the gate agent that we would be willing to take a bump IF she could get us on the direct flight to Rome. She immediately started to work on it. (Delta's computer system apparently makes this very complicated-- It involves a lot of typing, printing things, and talking on radios.) While I was standing there waiting, I thought, "I wonder if we could upgrade our new tickets using SkyMiles? I suppose I may as well ask..." And the gate agent said, "There aren't any seats available in Coach, so I'm putting you in Business Class." So, armed with our new boarding passes, I rounded up my husband and told him the good news as we hustled down to the other gate, where they were waiting for us to board.

We wound up flying directly to Rome (cutting 4 hours off of our travel time) in the lap of luxury, plus we each got the $400 travel vouchers (which, all things considered, we would have been perfectly willing to waive), and they even managed to redirect our luggage so that it arrived in Rome with us!!!

So we arrived at the airport in Rome on Saturday morning, bought train tickets to Termini Stazione, and then walked a couple of blocks to our hotel, which is quite nice. The lobby is simple but elegant; the stairs and hallways have white marble floors, and there's a nice little terrace area overlooking a small courtyard. We rested in our room for a couple of hours, and then took the Metro to the Spanish Steps, and wandered our way down to the Pantheon by way of the Trevi Fountain.

View from the top of the Spanish Steps on a Saturday afternoon...

The Trevi Fountain - Triton's Chariot is pulled by two "Sea Horses"

One horse represents calm seas...

And the wild horse represents stormy seas...

All three piazzas were crowded and busy, packed with not just with tourists, but also with Romans hanging out with friends. (The Pantheon is truly awesome. Pictures don't do it justice-- It's just amazing to consider that it has been standing for over 1500 years, and I really doubt that we could replicate it today, even if we tried.) We had a nice leisurely dinner in the Piazza della Rotunda, and then walked back to the Spagna metro station, again by way of the Trevi Fountain, where we got some gelato and threw coins in the fountain.

View of the Pantheon from our dinner table...

Trevi Fountain at night...

The only glitch came when we entered the metro station and found that they were locking the gates. I don't understand why the metro should stop running before 9:30 on a Saturday night, particularly in a city where most people don't even begin eating dinner until 8 or 9 at night. But apparently, that's just how it is. We stopped and asked two police officers for directions, and they didn't seem at all surprised that the metro was closed. After listening to them bicker with each other in Italian over which way to tell us to go, we decided to trust our instincts (and our guide book) and start walking. We walked for a few blocks, then decided to take a cab back to our hotel.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

You know you're an adult when... complete your taxes. TWICE.

My husband has spent the better part of the day working on our taxes. One of the major aggravations of being an adult is having to file your own taxes. But it's even worse being a married adult, because you actually have to prepare two different tax scenarios-- married filing jointly and married filing separately-- to figure out which way you get less screwed by the combined efforts of the federal and state governments.

In our case, we can avoid being taxed an extra $1200 if we file separately. We think. But then again, with the tax code being what it is, we could find ourselves being hauled off to jail and having our house, our dog, and our cat confiscated for not paying taxes that we didn't think we owed.

We'll really miss the house and the cat.

(They'll probably give the dog back as a form of additional punishment.)

You know you're an adult when... decide to spend a significant amount of money on something really mundane.

In this case, the mundanity is having leaf-guards installed in the rain gutters on our house.

But the true YKYAAW revelation-moment actually occurred when I found myself having a conversation with a coworker about the costs and benefits of different types of leaf-guards.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sunday Funnies

I just found the Ship of Fools website a couple of days ago. I can't help it-- Gadgets for God just makes me giggle...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Suddenly Spring

Spring arrived yesterday with a flourish of green.

We had pouring rain on Monday, but yesterday was warm & sunny, with a clear blue sky. In the course of a single day, the grass changed from drab brown to bright green. In a few days, there will be daffodils blooming everywhere, and in a week or two, the first flowering trees will start to blossom...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Miami Minutia

I've been to Miami about eight times in the past year and a half, so I think I'm getting to be a pretty experienced traveler. I know the schedule for all of the direct Delta flights between Cinci and Miami, I know which hotels I won't go back to, I know how to return rental cars to the airport, and I know some pretty good restaurants. Here are a few other things I've learned along the way:

  • Tuesday is Ladies' Night at the Doral Ale House. I know this little factoid because we go there a lot after working late, and on Tuesdays it's packed, which means that an already late dinner winds up being even later. But I do have to say that their Zingers taste pretty dang good at 9:30 at night.

  • Miami has very limited options in the way of radio stations. Your choices are: A) Salsa or B) Hip Hop (in Spanish, obviously)
    If you don't like those choices, you'd better hope that your rental car is equipped with XM radio. (As if the completely insane traffic isn't reason enough to hate driving in Miami...)

  • Cuban coffee is served three different ways-- cafe, cafe con leche, and cortado/cortadito. You can't make any of them using a standard drip coffee maker, but you can get get them at almost any restaurant down here.

  • If you come to Miami, you'll need to know the following information about the roads here:

    1. The city is divided into four quadrants: NW, NE, SE, & SW.

    2. Most of the roads are numbered. However, there's no rhyme or reason as to which numbers are actual roads-- For example, in the area that I'm staying, the only thru-roads are 25th St, 36th/41st St, 79th Ave, and 87th Ave. Some numbered roads also have names.

    3. Roads that run East-West are called Streets. Roads that run North-South are called Avenues. Roads that don't run anywhere are called Terraces. (I can't figure out why they would use that term, since it implies some sort of elevation change. Clearly the entire southern Florida peninsula is only about 6 feet above sea level at high tide, and the variation in altitude can't be more than plus or minus a foot and a half, if you exclude the drainage canals and highway overpasses.)

    4. For any given location, it's important to know the address number, the city quadrant, the road number, and whether it's a street or an avenue. (Ex: 3271 NW 87th Ave.) If you don't know all four of those things, you may wind up somewhere else.

    SIDEBAR: Personally, I absolutely hate numbered grid systems for cities. Since I have virtually no sense of direction, you would think that I would be a big fan of these systems. People say, "Oh, it's so easy to find your way around!" But they're LYING. Because I have yet to see a city with a grid system that doesn't have a half a million little "exceptions" to the system, and that's where all my troubles come in. I love Salt Lake City, but I have been lost there more times that I can count, and it's all due to the exceptions to the numbered grid system. Miami is especially tricky for me, because I've never paid that much attention to whether something is a street, or an avenue, or a road, or a drive. Suddenly, that little tag at the end is really important, and I haven't got any brain circuits specially designated for storing that information.

I'd like to close by quoting one of the guys that I work with down here-- "You know what the great thing about Miami is? It's so close to the United States."

Morning News

I'm in Miami again this week, and I was down here last week as well. One thing I'm starting to hate about staying in a hotel is that I have to face the day's news as soon as I walk out of my room in the morning. USA Today's front page article is about a school shooting in Minnesota, and it gave me a flashback to another newspaper story from a trip I made to Miami over a year ago-- I walked out of my room in the morning, picked up the paper, and headed for the elevator. As I was riding the elevator down to the lobby, I glanced at the paper and immediately became almost physically ill. It was the story of the first American hostage who was beheaded in Iraq.

Now I'm not saying that the news shouldn't be reported, or that I shouldn't read the news and deal with the stories that are presented. All I'm saying is that I'm not especially well-equipped to deal with these sorts of tragedies so early in the morning. I'd just like to have a cup of coffee before I'm forced to contemplate why there's so much hatred and violence and despair and sorrow in the world.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


This morning at my church, the band performed a song that really made an impression on me. It's beautiful, a little bit haunting, but also very hopeful. The song is called "Maybe There's a Loving God" and this evening I downloaded it from iTunes so that I can listen to it while I'm traveling this week. The singer who recorded the song is named Sara Groves, but I have to say that the girl who sang it today had a wonderful, expressive voice, and in my opinion, her performance was better than the original recording.

I wish I could share the song with you, but unfortunately, I think the best I can do here is to share the lyrics:

I'm trying to work things out
I'm trying to comprehend
Am I the chance result
Of some great accident?

I hear a rhythm call me
The echo of a grand design
I spend each night in the backyard
Staring up at the stars in the sky

I have another meeting today
With my new counselor
My mom will cry and say
I don't know what to do with her
She's so unresponsive
I just cannot break through
She spends all night in the backyard
Staring up at the stars and the moon

They have a chart and a graph
Of my despondency
They want to chart a path
For self-recovery
And want to know what I'm thinking
What motivates my mood
To spend all night in the backyard
Staring up at the stars and the moon

Maybe this was made for me
For lying on my back in the middle of a field
Maybe that's a selfish thought
Or maybe there's a loving God

Maybe I was made this way
To think and to reason and to question and to pray
And I have never prayed a lot
But maybe there's a loving God

And that may be a foolish thought
Or maybe there is a God

I think the song is about our quest for significance. Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? Do our lives have value? You may not believe that there is a God, but you still have to come up with your own personal answers about the meaning of your life.

I've been doing a lot of reading recently on the debate about Evolution vs. Intelligent Design. One of the many arguments for intelligent design is based on the idea that our Earth and our Sun are far more unique than scientists first thought. Earlier predictions said that we orbit a type of sun that is probably very common, and that there were probably millions of planets similar to ours. Now scientists are starting to say that our sun and solar system are unusual and rare, and that there may be very, very few planets like ours. Some experts say that our planet and our solar system seem to be not only uniquely well-suited for sustaining life, but also located in a position that is especially good for observing the universe.

So maybe the universe was made for us, for lying on our backs in the middle of a field, and maybe we were made this way, to think and to reason and to question and to pray...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Speaking of Lunacy...

Remember how I said that skiing is only as dangerous as you make it? Well, here is Exhibit A:

This guy is practicing for a competition where the goal is to go off a jump and run into a tree. Maybe the people participating in the Tree-Ski-Jumping competition are suffering from seasonal affective disorder due to Norway's short winter days-- Most people get depressed, but obviously some people manifest other forms of mental illness.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"Opportunity" Knocked

Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to working in Corporate America. I enjoy the benefits of a steady income, a good health insurance program, and lots of free SkyMiles accumulated through frequent business trips. And, for the most part, I manage to cope with the bureaucracy, political maneuvering, layoffs & restructurings, bland decor, and "business casual" dress code. But now I believe that a devious plot is infiltrating the corporate world, and I fear it will spread rapidly.

Last Friday, I had to attend a certain meeting.
  • For those of you who do not work in a corporate environment, let me just say that Dilbert cartoons are not "comic" strips so much as they are mini-documentaries. (This particular type of meeting has probably already been portrayed in some previous strip.) Scott Adams doesn't exaggerate.

  • For those of you who are already intimately familiar with typical corporate environments, I will further explain that the purpose of the meeting was to introduce a new "competency model" for professional development.

The meeting was led by a couple of manager-level-equivalents who were training us on how to use what is essentially a very large Excel spreadsheet with macros embedded in it to "make it easier to use." Apparently, there are a few tricks involved in retrieving the file off of our intranet and opening it up for editing. In passing, one of the manager-level-equivalents said, "So please just bear with us until we resolve some of the programming opportunities with this template."

For some reason, my mind latched onto that sentence and started looping around it. Finally, the grammar-checker region inside my brain spit out:
ERROR - There is a context discrepancy with the word "opportunity."


When this manager-level-equivalent made that statement, he didn't put any emphasis whatsoever on the word "opportunity," which would have implied that he was being facitious. In fact, I don't believe he was being facitious. I actually believe that he has forgotten what the word "opportunity" is supposed to mean.

Corporate euphemisms are subverting the English language! It's part of a plot to assimilate us all! We must resist!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

More on the Importance of Philosophy...

There is a beautifully written article on MSNBC by Rabbi Marc Gellman. It's called "'We Hold These Truths to Be Sacred' - What Thomas Jefferson would say about the Ten Commandments today." (As a side note, I also really liked his article called "Deep Gidget" from last week.) The article is about what Thomas Jefferson might say regarding the Ten Commandments and how they relate to the First Amendment.
He might teach the court that there are only three ways human rights are accorded to citizens. Either they are the rational construct of people trying to avoid “the war of each against all” in what Rousseau called the "State of Nature." This way sees civil rights as a rational outgrowth of our fear of those who want to hurt us or steal our iPods... ...Freedom in this theory is merely protection from the guy down the street. The problems with this theory are severe despite its appealing claim on human reason. In this view, some people can easily be excluded from rights because of some rational argument claiming to prove that it is not rational to protect them...

The second possibility for the origin of our rights is that they are gifts from the state to all or to some selected inhabitants of the state. This view sees rights as like a driver’s license. They are a privilege bestowed by the author of privilege, which is the government. This was not the communist theory, the theory was that the workers ran the state, but it was definitely the communist reality in which the state decided who had rights and that decision did not reach beyond the Politburo. It is also the present view of every dictatorship in the world—and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The third theory of how and why we have rights is the one Jefferson authored, the one I revere, and the one I hope the high court affirms without too many subjunctive clauses. This is the theory that our rights come from God through the state, which is created by the consent of the governed to protect the dignity of all its citizens, who are all made in the image of God. The state, in this view of rights, is always subject to critique based on its success or failure to respect the God-given freedoms of its citizens...

...What people forget, Jefferson might remind the court if he still had a larynx, is that our rights do not derive from the beliefs of any one religion. They derive from a nonsectarian national religious belief that our rights are secured by our being created in the image of God. Even though all Americans do not believe this, it is the reason why the rights of all Americans are secure... ...Only a national belief that we are created beings can do the job. Now that job is on trial by morons (and I say that without any negative connotation) who want to set adrift our God-given freedoms, represented perfectly but not exclusively by the Ten Commandments.

Perhaps Jefferson would say all that, or perhaps he would do something more dramatic and more profound. I bet he would approach the justices and place before them a yellowing piece of paper upon which was written his first version of the Declaration of Independence, the one that does not begin with, “We hold these rights to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights …” At first, Jefferson did not write “self-evident” because he knew that such rights as he imagined were absolutely not self-evident to reason or to the state. The rights that created America are the result of a spiritual/political leap of faith that grounds our rights in a formative national religious belief that we are all made in the image of God. From this belief has grown an exceedingly great and tolerant nation where people with different faiths and no faith at all have flourished.

The words on that yellowing paper, the words Jefferson’s wanted to open the Declaration of Independence contain no contradictions. They are made of whole cloth and they are woven on the loom of faith and freedom. This is what Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred …”

My previous posting on Philosophy touched on the idea that our beliefs have ramifications that affect our actions. I do believe that we are created by God in His image, and Jefferson's grand idea that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights" is just one of the many, many logical consequences of this belief.

You know you're an adult when...
...your back goes out.

Yesterday I suddenly became 80 years old...

  • It takes me about 30 seconds to transition from standing up to sitting down, and a minute-plus to make it from sitting down to standing up straight.

  • Getting in and out of my car is time-consuming and painful.

  • This morning I had to apply some strategic problem-solving skills to put on my socks. ("OK, so the immediate goal is to get all of my toes into the top cuff of the sock. If I can accomplish that, I think I'll be able to figure out a way to get the sock pulled up over my foot and ankle.")

  • When I drop something on the floor, I spend a few moments debating whether or not it's worth the trouble of picking it back up.

  • I think I'm starting to scowl at people around me-- partially because I am in pain everytime I move, but also because I know that if anyone bumps into me, I will certainly fall right over, and then I'll hurt worse than I already do. So now I view everyone walking around me as a potential threat to my (not-so-)well-being.

The problem is, I haven't had 50 more years to prepare for being 80-- It came on all at once, without warning of any kind. So I don't know any coping mechanisms.

I don't know why my back has suddenly gone into spasm. I wish I did, because then I could ensure that I wouldn't do whatever it was again. I guess I'll have to plan on doing preventative maintenance-- As soon as ski season is over I'm signing up for Yoga or Pilates.

Getting old sucks! I'm not mature enough to be old!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Lunacy & Voodoo

Another week, another trip... this time to rainy L.A.

According to one of the magazines in my hotel room, there is a great new body treatment available at one of hippest spas in town-- a salt scrub mixed with warm coffee. You can absorb caffeine through your skin, so apparently it's quite a rush. My only thought was, "Doesn't it stain?" Maybe the other benefit is an artificial tan.

While I'm sure that there are lots of other great reasons to live in Los Angeles, I have to say that I vastly prefer my standard of living (and 5 minute commute) in unglamourous Ohio. On Tuesday evening, we spent over an hour driving about 10 miles on the highway from LAX to Wilshire Blvd. We were in 6-8 lanes of stop-and-go traffic, all moving along at what seemed like a comfortable walking speed, and it was like 8-9pm at night-- so rush hour should have been well over, at least by the standards of any Midwestern city. Maybe the traffic snarls were due to the rain, but given the fact that the interstate has a total of 12+ lanes, I'm thinking it's far more likely that what we experienced is just a normal part of life out there.

I flew out to L.A. on Tuesday evening and back on Wednesday, so it was a quick trip. As it turns out, sitting in a plane for 3-4 hours a day is not the best cure for a stiff knee. But I am happy to report that my knee is considerably better now than it was last Sunday, and I didn't have to go to the doctor after all. Apparently it's going to let me off with a warning shot across the bow this time.

It was a rough week for the rest of the clan as well. My husband had a really bad cold from Sunday to Thursday, and my father-in-law had knee replacement surgery on Tuesday. Not to be outdone, the pets also got in on the act. The dog needed her teeth cleaned (which required general anesthesia) and had to have one tooth pulled, and my poor cat had a tooth pulled and surgery to remove a tumor on her side. They shaved a swath about 6 inches wide from over her spine to her belly, and she's got a stiched-up incision that is about 8 inches long, so she looks just awful. The only thing more pathetic and ridiculous than a wet cat is a half-shaved cat.

On the Subject of Lunacy...

We worked at the ski area yesterday afternoon & evening, and it was absolutely INSANE out there. (I'm attributing the craziness to the nearly-full moon last night.) We have five beds in our aid room, and at one point, they were all full, with another kid waiting in our big-wheel chair.

Before I became a patroller, I used to tell people that skiing was a safe sport that just got a bad rap. I don't say that any more. Now I can only say that, in general, skiing is only as dangerous as you (or the people around you) make it. Roughly 80% of the injuries that I see can be directly attributed to either a general lack of common sense or staggeringly bad judgment. Unfortunately, some injuries are attributable to somebody else's poor decision-making skills.

On the Subject of Voodoo...

For Valentine's Day, I bought tickets to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for my husband, and the concert was tonight. They performed with the Cincinnati Pops and put on a really excellent show. They've got some amazing talent, and it was a lot of fun to see them live.

Monday, February 21, 2005

You know you're an adult when... find yourself following steps A-E.

A> You have a crush on someone. (This step is not necessarily a sign of adulthood!)
B> You're under the premise that said person's spouse has died of a dreadful disease.
C> You find out said person's spouse is in fact alive and kicking, not dead from the dreadful disease that he/she did in fact have.
D> You learn that said person is in the midst of a divorce from undead spouse.
E> You try to talk said person out of the divorce...

(This "YKYAAW..." was submitted by a friend of mine.)

Blue Like Jazz

Last week, while I was flying home from Miami, I read a truly great book. I was so amazed by it that I read it again on Saturday. It's called Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. While the style of the writing is very casual, I can't help but feel that it deserves a place next to C. S. Lewis' great classic, Mere Christianity. Both books share a power that comes directly from the realization that Christianity should not be a cause of division and exclusion in this world, but instead it should be a source of wonder and outreach.

In Blue Like Jazz, Don talks about his group of friends setting up a "confession booth" on their college campus, but in an amazing twist, instead of asking people to confess their sins, he and his friends confess the sins of Christianity to them. They apologize for some of the horrible things that have been done in history in the name of Christianity, and they confessed their personal failings as Christians as well.

Unfortunately, Christianity is represented by imperfect people, but just imagine what would happen if, instead pretending to be perfect, we admitted to the fact that we can be self-absorbed, and judgemental, and lacking in compassion for other people. Of course, it's not enough to simply apologize for these failings-- As my mom used to say, "Sorry means you won't do it again."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Finally, a day of rest...

It seems like I've been busy pretty much non-stop since my last blog two weeks ago. The summary of my past two weeks looks something like this:
* 2 - Evenings of tutoring
* 2 - Trips to Miami
* 5 - Days working in Miami
* 6 - Days working in Cincinnati (including last Saturday)
* 4 - Days that my dad stayed with us (He flew into town to visit us and to ski as much as humanly possible.)
* 4 - Days/evenings of skiing (Thanks to the wonders of modern travel, I had lunch in Miami on Thursday and was out on the snow in Cincinnati by 5:30pm that evening.)
* 3 - Weeks of having a cough that won't go away
* 3 - Naps necessary to recover from all these other events

I know that the Miami thing may sound exotic and fun, but please believe me when I say that we were working in a climate-controlled (62 degrees) clean room (i.e. wearing lab coats, hair covers, latex gloves, and booties on our shoes) with no windows from about 8:30am to 9pm every day. The weather was lovely, but I didn't see much of it.

I actually have a holiday tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I kind of tweaked my knee yesterday, so unless it's feeling significantly better tomorrow, I think my husband is going to force me to see a doctor. I'm sort of in denial, because I really don't want someone to tell me that I have knee problems and that I should stop skiing, even if it's only temporary. After all, how serious can it be? I didn't actually fall, and I was able to keep skiing for over an hour after it happened.

In hindsight, I have to admit that taking the jump was not one of my better ideas, but in my defense, I would like to point out that I actually landed it. (My husband insists on saying that all jumps result in a landing, but I maintain that there is a difference between landing from a jump (passively) and actively landing a jump.) It may not have been graceful, or even comfortable, but I didn't actually fall. Anyway, my knee has chosen this "teachable moment" to remind me that I am, in fact, over thirty now, and to insist that it will no longer tolerate such juvenile behavior from me.

You know you're an adult when... use a precious vacation day to go home a take a nap.

The past two weeks have been insanely busy for me, and I just haven't been able to catch up on sleep. So on Friday, I used a half a vacation day to go home and take a nap. Now there are very few things that are more precious to me than vacation days. I am desperately envious of the European standards of 4-6 weeks of vacation each year. I only get 3 weeks of vacation, and I have to work for 2 more years before I make it to 4 weeks of vacation. So blowing even half a vacation day for something so mundane as staying at home and sleeping is completely uncharacteristic for me. The only thing that convinced me to splurge was the idea that if I DIDN'T take the afternoon off, I would probably wind up sick for the entire 3-day holiday weekend.

Friday, February 18, 2005

On the Importance of Philosophy...

Some people choose a career path, while other people find that a certain career is more of a "calling" than a choice. I think that most people, myself included, tend to associate the idea of a "calling" with people who are artists, or writers, or doctors, or social workers, or pastors. But I also believe that there are people who are just born to be engineers.

I am an engineer. It is more than just what I do for a living, it is also a significant part of who I am. I love taking things apart and figuring out how they work. I love taking things apart to figure out why they aren't working. I love the mathematics of engineering-- the study of physics, statics & dynamics, and material properties. I love that mechanical objects can be described by a set of equations, and that those equations can predict how that object will move or bend or break due to the forces acting upon it.

My job involves an obsession with concrete data-- We determine what data we need to collect, we develop test methods to control inputs and measure outputs, and we use statistical techniques to analyze the data so that we make unbiased decisions about whether something is good or bad. I am comfortable with this obsession. By my nature, I prefer the Empirical over the Subjective. Politics and psychology aren't factors in mechanical systems, so it is easy for me to marginalize their importance in the rest of the world.

Recently, however, I've come to recognize how important it is to understand our own personal philosophies in life. Our decisions and our behaviors are driven by our beliefs, whether we are cognizant of those beliefs or not. If I want to make better decisions or improve my interactions with others, I need to understand how my psychology is being affected by my philosophy. For example, I can say that want to be more patient and considerate of other people, but I'm not likely to change my day-to-day interactions with people unless I also work on changing my heart. When I focus on the reasons why I should value other people-- whether it is my husband, my friends, my co-workers, or total strangers-- my behavior will naturally start to reflect this esteem.

This week, I started developing a list of philosophy statements, and I also am including the ramifications that should be driven by these beliefs. I won't pretend that my life demonstrates evidence of these beliefs right now, but by writing them down, I am hoping to ensure that I will ponder on them and reinforce them in my mind so that eventually my actions WILL reflect these beliefs. And so I have become an engineer with a profound respect for the importance of philosophy...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

You know you're an adult when... pay for your heat in the summer because you know you won't be able to afford it if you wait until winter.

This title was suggested by my friend PV31W, who has learned about the cost of heat the hard way. Her last apartment apparently had either a) the least effective furnace in the Midwest, b) completely inadequate insulation, or c) all of the above. It was never warm enough (i.e. above 60) in her apartment, and to make matters worse, she is also a person who just gets cold easily. At one point last winter, she came over to our house and showed us that her hands were a ghastly jaundiced-green color because her body was shutting down circulation to her extremities in an attempt to maintain her core body temperature. Obviously, just putting on a sweater wouldn't solve the problem for her, unless she could also put on mittens, but that would probably have interfered somewhat with her ability to do her homework for college. So she found another apartment, but she also started paying for her electric & gas bill under the level-loading payment plan.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Why I Love Skiing

I think that I love almost everything about skiing. I can only think of one thing that I really dislike, and that's skiing in the rain. But I still like the skiing part of it, just not the rain part of it, so I'm not sure if that really counts. And OK, I'm also not a big fan of ice, but there are still so many other things that I love about skiing that it's at least 99.44% pure love.

So here is a small list of some of the things that I love about skiing:
* I love first tracks in the morning, after the groomers have done their magic to smooth out all the runs.
* I love the way that freshly groomed snow makes you feel like you're gliding on velvet.
* I love the sound of the snow under my skis. It can range between a squeek and a roar, and it tells you everything you need to know about the snow.
* I love the swooping sensation of skiing-- It's a combination of falling and swinging and dancing that you just don't get from other sports.
* I love being outside in the cool, crisp air.
* I love that skis can take you to places that wouldn't be accessible any other way.
* I love the comraderie of the chairlift.
* I love working with my fellow patrollers. I love that we have such different backgrounds and that we come together because of a common obsession.
* I love helping people learn something new and, in the process, learning new things myself.
* I love the way the ski area is lit up at night. It looks like a birthday cake with white icing.
* I love the peace and solitude of doing our final sweep of the trails at the end of the night.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Super Sunday

What a great way to spend a Sunday. We went to church this morning, went out to lunch with a few friends afterward, and then I headed out to the ski area for my weekend shift. Due to the Super Bowl, it was a very calm evening at the ski area. My fellow patrollers and I watched the first quarter of the game from the rustic comfort of our hut ("Aspen East") at the top of the hill. After that, we got on to more important things, like having fun on the nearly empty runs and occasionally helping people, although I'm glad to report that there were no real injuries this evening. At the end of the night, we closed down the area and helped one of the other patrollers get his truck started before heading for home.

On the way home, I was thinking to myself, "I really do have a good life. I have a wonderful husband and some really great friends. We have a home that we love, and we are part of an amazing church. I enjoy my job, and I also really enjoy my "other job" working as a patroller at the ski area. Life is good."

As I was thinking all of these things, I saw a shooting star, and I thought, "My life is so blessed-- What else could I possibly wish for?"

Thursday, February 03, 2005

You know you're an adult when...
...the repair of a home appliance is the highlight of your day.

Our big excitement for today has been that we now have a working humidifier on our furnace. (Keep in mind that we're both sick, so our opportunities for excitement are severely limited by the confines of the house.)

Our house is new-- It was just completed last June, and the furnace was installed probably sometime last March or so. Late in December, we discovered that the humidifier wasn't working. After some preliminary troubleshooting, my husband talked to the manufacturer, and discovered that some of the key components (the humidstat sensor and the external temperature sensor) were never installed. Fortunately, they were kind enough to send us the necessary modules, and my husband tried installing them in January. However, at that time, the main controller appeared to not be working, so he made another phone call to the manufacturer, who agreed to send us a replacement. It came in the mail today, along with installation instructions.

As it turns out, the installation instructions were more critical than the replacement controller. The original controller works fine, now that the wiring is hooked up correctly.

So we will finally have some level of moisture in our air for the remainder of the winter!!! I realize that this doesn't seem like such a big deal, and when I was younger, I would have agreed. Generally, I'm not such a big fan of heat and humidity-- With the exception of scuba diving, my favorite outdoor activities tend to be better when things are cold and dry. However, for the past couple of months, my feet have been making velcro noises in my socks, my fingernails have been spontaneously disintegrating as soon as they reach the tips of my fingers, and my lips have been perpetually chapped. (Like a squirrel, I have compulsively stashed chapstick everywhere I go-- in my purse and in the pockets of all my coats, next to my computer at work, in my car, near the couch, on the bathroom counter, on my nightstand, etc.) So I am eagerly anticipating the relief that the humidifier will bring.

If I had a voice left, I would give three cheers for my husband and the kind technical support woman at Aprilaire.


A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting book called "blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. It ranges far and wide, starting with a description of how a fraudulent piece of artwork was exposed, moving on to researchers who analyze marriages and matchmaking, the marketing of flops (New Coke) and hard-to-sell products (the new Hermann Miller chair), why some doctors are more likely to get sued for malpractice, how people react under traumatic or high-stress conditions, and prejudice against women in the classical music world.

While the book doesn't explicitly teach how to change the way you make decisions, it does present a compelling case for the fact that people can develop amazing aptitudes in areas that might normally be called intuition.

The book reminds me of some of the things that I learned about in my cognitive psychology classes in college... I find it fascinating that people have so many different areas for talent-- a sense of direction, the ability to learn new languages, photographic memory, "perfect pitch" and other musical skills, recognizing faces or voices, being able to visualize how things fit together, the ability to "read" other people through their body language and facial expressions, special gifts for physical/motor coordination, being able to do calculations in your head, etc, etc, etc. Not only are there many, many of types of abilities, there is also enormous potential for developing and improving upon those abilities, given the right conditions and motivation.

State of Social Security

Could someone give me a GOOD explanation for why personal accounts are a bad idea? Several years ago, when I graduated from school and starting working full-time, my grandmother said to me, "You need to start saving money, because Social Security won't be enough for your retirement." And I laughed out loud. I told her, "Grandma, I don't plan on ever getting any money from Social Security."

I would like to point out that I don't know anyone from my age group (aka Generation X) who seriously thinks that we'll get back the money that they take out of our paychecks every month for Social Security. My husband and I just consider it a type of income tax, not a part of our plans for retirement.

So if Bush wants to put a PORTION of the money that I'm paying and put it into an account in my name, I can't see why I'm supposed to be upset by that. As it is now, ALL of the money that I'm paying will go to other people. (Does anyone seriously want to claim that's not true?) I know that Bush's plans for renovating Social Security go beyond just the personal accounts, but it's the idea of privatization that seems to be drawing the greatest fire, and I haven't heard any rational arguments for why it's a such bad idea. (And no, claiming that it's a bad idea just because Bush is the one pushing for it is NOT a rational argument.)

For people my age, I think it would be great to get SOME sort of guaranteed return. Younger people should see even more of an advantage to this, since they will benefit more (through the magic of compound interest) from starting even earlier. (And how many other opportunities do people under the age of 25 have to start saving for retirement? Most people that age don't have 401k or IRA accounts.) I'm not sure why the AARP is so upset by the idea, since Bush has already stated, on several occasions, that people who are already at retirement age would continue to receive the benefits that they have been promised.

So is it the people in the 40-50 age bracket that feel threatened by this proposed change? Obviously, they'll still be able to draw out of the existing pool, plus they'll have access to some of the money that the government will be collecting from my age group and the people younger than us. (And I'm OK with that. Since I've essentially already written off the entire Social Security system, I'd be pretty silly to argue about what happens to the remainder of the money that doesn't go into my personal account now.) If they believe that the pool isn't enough for them, isn't that just a stronger argument that it certainly won't be enough for people coming along later?

Sick Day

Today I'm home sick with a bad case of bronchitis. I went to the doctor yesterday afternoon, and after hearing me speak (croak, actually) and listening to me breathe, she quickly wrote out a prescription for antibiotics. While she was writing, one of my (obnoxious, overwhelming, and exhausting) coughing spells occurred, and when she heard that, she quickly added an additional prescription for cough medicine. It's a particularly busy time at work, but I think I'm better off staying home and trying to rest than going to work and potentially infecting all of my co-workers, especially since we're all going to be travelling a lot in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, my husband came down with the flu yesterday, so he's at home today too. When I'm not busy coughing, I'm worried that four days from now, when we're both on our next business trips, he'll come down with bronchitis and I'll come down with the flu. He'll be in Huntsville, Alabama and I'll be in Miami, Florida, so if you live in the Southeast, start taking your vitamins now.

So my occupation today mostly consists of reading, surfing the net, and watching the pets migrate across the living room floor, following the pools of sunlight that are streaming in through the windows. The dog usually spends weekdays in her kennel, so a sick day for us turns into a rare treat for her. Here they are-- Virgil the Dingy Dachshund and Emma the Tubby Tabby...

What I'm really bummed about is that in the last 24 hours, we got about 3-4 inches of snow, and it's a beautiful day today. (In Cincinnati, fresh, fluffly snow is unusual, as are sunny days in February. Both things happening together are rare beyond all reason.) We were scheduled to be on duty at the ski area, but obviously, neither of us is in any shape to be skiing. (We have ski patrol duty every other Thursday, and two weeks ago, my husband was out of town on a business trip, and I couldn't make it to the ski area because of bad weather, so I feel especially bad about missing two shifts in a row.) It's bad enough being sick when all I'm missing out on is work, but to be sick and missing out on good skiing is truly unfortunate.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

I've been following the news on the Iraqi elections with a lot of interest and anxiety. Actually, I've been following the news from Iraq closely since before the war ever started. I'm not exactly sure why I've been so focused on it-- I don't know anyone from Iraq, and I don't know anyone who has been sent over there to fight. (I do have an uncle and a cousin who have been sent to Afghanistan, but I haven't followed the news there nearly as much.)

Of course, like most Americans, I really did believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I also think that most other countries believed it as well-- all of the national intelligence agencies were saying the same thing. (Unfortunately, the kick-backs from the Oil-for-Food program seemed to speak louder than the intelligence agencies. "OK, that seems reasonable, Saddam, a few quick 'inspections' and then we'll lift sanctions and let you go back to doing anything you want." That would have been brilliant.) At the very least, Saddam wanted everyone else to think that he had WMD, so I'm not going to waste a whole lot of time feeling bad that we took him and his sons and cronies out of power. They were all truly horrible people. Obviously, I'm not advocating that we overthrow foreign governments just because we don't like their leaders. (Who has that kind of time?) But I am saying that Saddam was essentially begging for it. If you walk up to the biggest guy on the block, start calling him names, and then threaten to beat him up, don't be all surprised if he knocks you out cold. That's just common sense. I'm just sorry that the Iraqi people have had to pay an additional price for his arrogance and insanity.

OK, so all of that aside, I will admit that it would have been nice to have had better intelligence information, and that there were probably better ways to accomplish our goals, which may or may not have involved being polite to France. And if we had to go to war, certainly it would have been great if we had been able to remove Saddam from power, maintain security, allow the Iraqis to establish their own government, and then come back home inside of a year. If frogs had wings...

So given the fact that the situation in Iraq has become such a mess, I've been increasingly troubled by the news reports and the predictions for the future. But as I've been reading some of the news stories today, I'm starting to think that maybe there are a few reasons to hope that these elections will mark a turning point. (By the way, there is a Newsweek article called The Cities Were Not Bathed in Blood by Ron Nordland that is really excellent.) So here are my thoughts on the good news from the elections:

1. There is a saying that we Americans tend toss around carelessly at Memorial Day and Veterans Day and other similar occasions. We say that "Freedom isn't Free" when we stop to think about the people who have fought for the United States. But I think that the concept applies here as well. If everything went smoothly, and there were no threats or bombs, would there have been as much celebration in Iraq yesterday? I kind of doubt it. Up until now, their government has been based on our efforts, and even assuming that we mean well, we can't just provide it to them as a gift and expect it to have value. If there was no insurgency, we could have just set up booths and said, "Come vote here. It's quick and easy." I don't think it would have been a cause for celebration. Some things just have to be purchased with something more than money.

2. The election winners aren't decided yet, but I'm glad to hear at least some cautious optimism about the likely winners. For the most part, it seems like Sistani is a pretty canny guy. He may not be a guy that we would elect for office in the United States, but he's definitely not a raving lunatic in the style of Ayatollah Khomeini. He recognizes that it's in Iraq's best interest to have a stable government that doesn't trample on the rights of the minority groups, even if they were the ones who were previously trampling on everyone else. And personally, I think it's cool that he issued a religious decree telling women to vote no matter what their husbands tell them. On top of that, it also seems like Allawi has been a good leader for Iraq, so hopefully he will be able to stick around for awhile as well.

3. There a lot of news stories that quote people as saying, "The US is here because they want to control our oil, etc, etc, etc." Now I'm sure that there is a large percentage of the Iraqi population who suspect our motives and definitely want us to leave ASAP, but I think that the elections show that despite all of the grumbling and suspicion, there is a silver lining here. If they really believed that we were planning to set up a sham government that operated under our direct supervision, would they bother risking their lives to go vote?

Finally, I would like to say (just in case anyone out there can hear me) to the people of Iraq: Today we are all cheering with you, and we are thrilled to welcome you into the family of democracy. We truly wish you all the best...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Fear Evaporates

"We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it's our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand."
--from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Now I'm not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of Coelho's writing. I've read two of his books so far-- The Alchemist and The Fifth Mountain-- and I'm sure that I could benefit from re-reading them with a little more focus. But I did find two sections of the The Alchemist particularly intriguing, and the quote above is one of them.

For some reason, this quote projects a deep sense of peace and calm to me. It's a little like staring into photos of galaxies and nebula. I think it's facinating that just a few, simple words can have so much power.

Utah Trip

I guess a good place to start with this blog is with a summary of our recent ski trip to Utah. We went with my mom, my sister, my brother, and several of our friends. It was a good trip-- The weather wasn't very cooperative, but it was great group of people, so that made up for it.

The six of us from Cincinnati travelled out there on Friday night (1/7) after work. We all met up at the Outback in Concourse B for a quick bite to eat before the flight to Salt Lake City. We arrived in SLC, fought with the rental car agencies, drove to Park City, found the condo, figured out the sleeping arrangements, and crashed for the night.

For our first day of skiing, we decided to head to Canyons. On our other trips there, we've always spent all day exploring the ski area, and we've never managed to cover it all. As it turns out, we wound up exploring significantly LESS of it this time. Due to high winds, they had to close almost all of the lifts by lunchtime, so we wound up skiing just two areas.

On Sunday, we went to Deer Valley. Once again, my husband's luck held, and we did not get to experience the perfectly groomed trails that Deer Valley has built its reputation upon. Lots and lots of fresh, wet snow, and it continued to snow in little ice pellets all day long. In the morning, we tried to head over to Stein's Run, but it was closed, and were diverted down Perserverance instead. Our poor little group of midwestern/eastern skiers never stood a chance against the deep heavy stuff that we found there, so there was a LOT of perserverance going on-- We struggled, we fell, we got back up, we struggled some more, we fell many more times, but eventually we all made it to the bottom. And we even managed to commemorate the event with a photo op somewhere in the middle...

On Monday, we headed to Brighton, a perennial favorite. It was still snowing in little prickly pellets, and the snow on the ground was pretty heavy. (Actually, it never stopped snowing until Wednesday morning, when were preparing to leave. That's when the sun finally came out.) Due to the snow and the poor visibility, the professional photographers that are usually working at the top of the hill weren't there, so we took our own group photo.

Unfortunately, this was the day that my mom hurt her knee. She's tough, though-- She fell near the top of a run, but she got up and skied to the bottom, and made ANOTHER run before deciding that her knee was really hurt. We all thought that she had torn her LCL, but when she went to the doctor for x-rays and an MRI the next day, they found that she had fractured her tibial plateau. (Which just goes to show that you should always go to a professional and get a second opinion instead of relying on biomechanical engineers, physical therapists, and physicians to make a diagnosis without any imaging equipment.) So the bad news is that she broke her leg, but the good news is that she won't have to have surgery to repair a ligament.

On Tuesday, our last day, half our group (including Mom, obviously) decided not to ski, and the remainder of us headed to Snowbasin. After our first run, we went up John Paul Express to check out the top of the Olympic downhill run, and then, in the fog, we blundered onto Grizzly and wound up taking a REALLY, REALLY long time to get down. The snow was deep, and extremely wet, so we wound up traversing back and forth forever. We finally made it to lunch around 2pm, and while we were eating in the lodge at the top of the mountain, it started to rain. Blech!

Aside from the skiing, we did have a lot of fun together. The condo had a nice hot tub inside a gazebo, and we experienced the thrills of rolling in the snow after sitting in the hot tub. We played some euchre, shared some nice meals in Park City, and in general, just enjoyed everyone's company thoroughly. We're all looking forward to doing it again next year!