Friday, August 30, 2013

As a child, I loved going with my family to the Museum.  I could spend hours perusing the trains, cars, and airplanes that littered the giant warehouse of wonders.  I can still remember details of some of the steam locomotives, and quite a few of the airplanes they had neatly lined up beyond those low rope barricades.  A lot has changed since those days, but many of my memories are intact.

I was reminded of one of those memories today, a particularly vivid one.  At the time, there was a children's area set up in an otherwise empty section of the floor.  They must have had coloring books and puzzles and various other things to touch and play with.  What I particularly remember are the computers.  This was before my family even thought of purchasing our own computer, so these were something of a curiosity for me.  Of course I had to spend at least a little time sitting in front of one.

They had them set up so that children could play an early computer game.  The game involved driving construction equipment which also piqued my interest.  I was just starting to get the hang of pointing and clicking and generally playing the game when one of the virtual hosts in the game instructed me to drive a steamroller over a pile of pop cans or some such thing.  I dutifully put the thing in gear and off to work we went.  To my horror, I had barely flattened the first can when the other virtual host character shouted in dismay that I was crushing his prized collection of cans!

I felt terrible.  I had only wanted to have fun driving the construction machines around for a while; I didn't want to destroy anyone's property, let alone their prized collection.  Yet the game would only allow me to continue operating the machinery if I would continue to destroy this poor character's cherished belongings.  Soon I couldn't take it any more.  To this day I still feel bad for destroying those virtual cans and whatever else they wanted me to do.  I know it's only imaginary, but it just doesn't seem ok to have fun destroying things in which others, even virtual others, place value.  Why couldn't they let me actually build things with those construction machines, or at the very least just let me drive them around a field.  I guess we have to teach our children that being constructive isn't allowed to be fun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Photon

It’s just a photon.  It began its journey at the sun, like most others that reach the Earth’s surface.  Along its journey it almost landed on the planet Venus, but not quite.  It almost missed the earth too, but not quite.  To be fair, it never really hit the earth, but was intercepted before it reached the grassy embankment most of its companions found at the end of their journeys.  Even of those that were nearly on the same path as this photon, many were bounced back into space or absorbed by a silver coated piece of glass.  Still, this photon continued.  It found itself bounced off some mirrors inside a cardboard tube, and passing through some lenses before ending up in a human eyeball.  The photon’s journey ended there, but the human’s feeling of awe upon considering the photon’s mundane but unlikely journey was just beginning.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

It seems so distant now, a couple of lifetimes ago at least.  My then scoutmaster was also the school cross country coach, and the junior high team was very small.  If I would join the team, they would have enough members to officially compete.  It was a tough sell, as I hadn't been too interested in competitive sports before, quitting a soccer team ostensibly because of the excessive running during practice.  As it turns out, I stuck with the cross country team and did quite well through my high school years.  Over those seven years the team grew and shrunk, and we ate through at least four coaches.  Some were good, some were bad, and a couple were key in driving us to winning a state championship my senior year of high school.  I was never the standout athlete of the team, but I managed to keep up with the pack, and was most often in the top 7 (5 out of 7 score points in varsity races, and the 6th is a tie breaker), and was the fastest 6th man from any team at our winning state meet.

After our state-winning race.

Moving on to college, I made a very conscious decision to not run competitively.  I could feel the strain of keeping up with such a great team, both physically and mentally, and I could sense that it was time to ease off a little.  Since I was planning to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I also saw that winning the state meet would probably be the highlight of my athletic career in any case.  I would still run, to be sure, but it was very nice to be able to train and run races without having to worry about anything but my own satisfaction.  It also allowed me to focus more on running longer races, and I completed several half-marathons.  Still, I felt that I wouldn't be able to keep it up forever without getting hurt.

Approaching the finish of a half-marathon.

Then a few more changes came along.  I graduated with my bachelor's degree, got married, and moved on to graduate school.  Most semesters in my undergrad, I lived within walking distance of campus.  For grad school, we bought a house a few miles away from the lab where I work.  This prompted me to start riding a bike to work when the weather is conducive (most of the warm months).  Growing up, my family was into cycling in a big way.  When I was quite young, we rode in a couple organized weeklong tours of Ohio on our custom made three person bike.  Later, we rode single bikes on weeklong rides from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron/Erie across Michigan's lower peninsula.

Filling up the gas tank on a weeklong ride across Michigan's lower peninsula.

Something clicked.  I dusted off the old road bike I'd acquired through some kind of squatter's rights from my dad.  On a trip home, my parents caught me eyeing up the ancient Schwinn tandem that had been collecting dirt and rust in the barn since I could remember.  They decided that they probably would never ride their slightly newer Dawes tandem anymore, and it was in much better shape.  We managed to get it down to Indiana, and I spent several weekends replacing cables, adjusting brakes and saddles, and tightening chains.  My wife Ashby was a good sport throughout the restoration process, once walking four miles back home with me after a snapped chain stopped us cold on a steep uphill.

The chain in use here is probably the one that stranded us recently!

Now the tandem seems to be in reliable shape, and we're set to do our second Wabash River Ride toward the end of this month.  Last time we managed the shortest 33 mile route on our single bikes, but this time we're hoping to do one of the longer loops.  It's nice to have found a sport I can do with Ashby thanks to the tandem.  She's even worked up the courage to do solo rides on the back roads near our home, and I've noticed that she's much more confident riding her single bike now.  She tried running several times, but it just wasn't her thing.  Now I think we've finally found a sport that we can do together.  It's nice to have rediscovered cycling.  I plan to continue running the occasional 5k, but I'm having too much fun being back in the saddle to think about that right now!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The questions came so often as to become increasingly annoying as the day went on. “Is that a waterproof camera?” “How do you keep your camera dry?” It was with much thought and deliberation that I had decided to bring along my rather new, fancy, expensive camera an a canoeing trip on Michigan’s Ausable river. After all, a single dunk might incapacitate my new favorite toy, maybe permanently. Still, I’d decided to take it along to capture the beautiful scenery we’d be floating through. I figured the risk was worth taking, especially since I could trust my wife not to rock the boat (she rowed competitively in high school).

We weren't feeling too competitive that day.

As we set out from the livery in the morning, we quickly came upon a bridge running over a shallow patch. A couple of canoes and their occupants were getting off to a good start jettisoning the day’s lunch and everything else including the human cargo, all while doing an admirable job of blocking any reasonable passage under the bridge. By some minor miracle we made it around the ongoing carnage without so much as scraping bottom. It made me a little nervous about my decision to tote the camera, because I realized that the greatest danger may not be within my control, but in the hands of the many people on the river who seemed to be experiencing much consternation in their efforts to float successfully with the current.

Yes, I do happen to be related to most of the people in this photo...

Now, I don’t consider myself by any means an expert river runner. I’ve piloted my share of small watercraft, mostly of the human powered persuasion, but the last time I’d been in a canoe was over a year ago. Still, every time we passed a raft of canoes clinging desperately to one another for defense against the inevitable collision with shore, floating debris, or another such conglomeration, we’d always get a compliment on how expert we appeared, along with an inquiry into the water resistance of my camera. It began to strike me that it doesn’t require much beyond a mote of ambition and a willingness to learn in order to keep a canoe’s bow pointed safely downstream. What’s more, once you aren’t constantly trying to avoid taking an impromptu bath as a result of an unwanted rendezvous, you end up able to enjoy the scenery to a much fuller degree. Why were we the best at this?

There can be no good outcome to this situation.

After lunch, as we continued on our way to the extraction point where we’d meet the summer break high schooler in a decades old Ford van who’d take us back to the livery, the comments about the camera and it’s abundant dryness kept coming in. About this time I started replying, at least in my imagination, that I kept the camera dry the same way I kept everything else on my person and in my vessel dry. I found it hard to believe that so many people who presumably were able to successfully navigate the interstate highway system and a labyrinth of back roads to arrive at this remote stretch of river could be so helplessly unable to control their fates once afloat and responsible for their own route planning and safety within the confines of the river banks. What was it? Is there no more desire to be proficient? There seemed to be an unspoken mournful acceptance of mediocrity, to which we were the exception; us, with our vast canoeing experience of many hours.

I'm, like, a regular voyageur or something.

As we pulled our canoe onto the river bank at the end of the day’s trip and waited for the van, I took note of the overwhelming dryness of my camera. My plan had succeeded, and I had captured many wonderful images of family and friends and the scenery along the way. It still bugged me that so many people considered it an impossibility to maintain an upright position while canoeing. I know some people aren’t as coordinated as others, but it seemed to me that many people weren’t even trying. Is it that they don’t want to make others feel bad, and so degrade their own performance in a self reinforcing spiral of sudden immersion (not unlike the one that forms when you drain your bathtub…)? In a desire to commiserate about the difficulties of maintaining an upright orientation, do people actually strive to compromise their stability? Shouldn’t we strive to be a better one, whatever we are?

There, that's better. See, it wasn't that hard.

See, the way to prevent your camera getting wet is to keep it out of the water.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Driving Back to School

How time flies. It seems like only yesterday I was making this drive for the first time. Now I've driven it for the last time. Somewhere on a lonely northbound stretch of interstate I found myself thinking back to that drive, a few years and a lifetime ago. I was in the same car, driving on the same roads, the back seat and trunk filled to the brim with boxes. Both times I found myself looking to the future with excitement and anticipation for the opportunities that would await me in the place I would spend the next several years. Both times I experienced the melancholy of leaving the familiar behind and facing the great unknown.

Of course, my first drive up to Tech was quite different from this one. With my bachelors degree almost behind me, I'm now making plans for graduate school. The familiar town I'll now be leaving this time is not the town where I grew up. Most importantly, this time there's someone in the passenger seat who's coming with me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Things that Last

To my mind at the time, permanence was both a given and a foreign concept depending on the context. Some things around me like my house, school, and yard seemed to be perpetual. Most of my possessions on the other hand were seemingly transient. Clothes no sooner fit than were too small; some toys just weren’t as fun to play with as they were in the past. Then, I got my backpack. It was a nice one; with two cavities to keep my books separate, padded so my shoulders wouldn’t get sore, and even had a water bottle holder. Oh, and it cost more than I realized you could spend on just about anything. This was something I’d have to take care of.

Since then my backpack has traveled a lot of miles, though a few less than it’s owner. It’s been on beautiful mountain hikes, climbed the Eiffel Tower, and of course attended classes. It’s survived the ravenous jaws of middle school lockers, treacherous northern Michigan winter walks to school, and been unceremoniously crammed into the back of various vehicles for the long treks home from college. Still, apart from losing a couple of the frilly bits on the zipper pulls, it’s always ready when I need it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Memories on a Run

My run today took me past a place long familiar; a place where my cousin and I once climbed vast jungle gyms and scaled giant concrete pipes. Memories of building block towers and scavenger hunts abound there. The lawn is overgrown now, and the metal jungle gyms and concrete pipes have long ago been removed lest children be exposed to the hazard. In their place a plastic play set sits unused on its bed of recycled tires. Inside on the floor once strewn with blocks and other toys are scattered shards of broken glass, while vines make a steady, beautiful assault on the sidewalks and brick columns. As I ran by, I realized that my hometown is changing and so am I. My kindergarten is for sale, but my memories will remain.