Some Time in the Trees

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For a bunch of years I worked on challenge courses. I was an instructor, I managed a program and I helped to build and design courses. It was great stuff. One spring day a colleague and I were hanging from cables, adjusting an element high off the ground and she shouted over to me “Hey, we’re at work right now!” Not a bad office.

I still miss that work. I gave it up to have more time in the summer. My wife was a teacher so had summers free. I had winters free. That was tough, so I found other interesting work. Today, however, I got a taste of that outdoor world. I headed to Stowe Mountain Resort and tried out their TreeTop Adventure challenge.

I was there with my children and a friend of my daughter’s. We had experienced courses like this before so it was not totally new to them. After checking in at the lodge, and taking the short gondola ride across the road, we found the place to get an orientation. With harnesses strapped on and our primer completed, we headed to the woods.

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The course includes four smaller courses with increasing difficulty levels: yellow (small people only), green, blue and black. After each course climbers have the option to head to the ground and to be done. Smart. We did green through black. The elements were indeed increasingly challenging. It was a lot of fun.

While the kids were focused on the physical aspects of what they had to do, I paid some attention to the course itself. I was curious about how the platforms were constructed, the specifics of each element, the safety systems. I asked myself more than once “Why didn’t I think of that?” New ideas have clearly come about since my days out there.

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The other thing I enjoyed was simply being up in the trees. It was a perfect day, the sun dappling the forest floor, a light breeze. We moved about at the level of the leaves. I felt at ease up there. Years ago I spent hours on platforms like that, helping others through their own physical and mental challenges. Even today, I felt like I could stay up there all day.

After a couple of hours we all zipped down the last cable to end our adventure. We walked back to drop off our harnesses (harni?), feeling a little more tired than when we started, feeling good about challenging ourselves and succeeding. I was a tad envious of those folks in the red STAFF shirts on the ground, but only a tad. I had a good run with that work. Today I was happy to walk back to the car with three happy teens, lunch around the corner, plus a stop at the Ben and Jerry’s factory. Challenge courses have changed, and apparently I have too.

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Kakuro

A while back I wrote about my new interest in Kenken.  I had tried sudoku and had some fun with that, but kenken was way more interesting for me.  I still am hooked.  My wife has recently borrowed my book of puzzles and has been plowing through them.  Good for her.  I am a little concerned that I will have none to do in that book when she ends her spree, but no matter.  At the moment I am into kakuro.

My parents, in their wisdom, gave me a half dozen puzzle books for father’s day.  One of them was a book of kakuro puzzles.  I had never done them before, never even seen them before.  The book describes them on the back cover:

Kakuro are half sudoku, half crossword, and use a combination of logic and arithmetic.  They will require you to focus, think carefully, and reason your way out of missteps.

It is a good thing these are math based puzzles, otherwise I might not forgive the split infinitive in the description, but why be picky?  I managed to flub the first puzzle in the book, making an error somewhere that I finally just left behind, but once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t stop.  They are a blast.  Here is a sample, from kakuro.com:

Sample Kakuro Puzzle

Sample Kakuro Puzzle

Both this site and kakuro.net have some good samples and online puzzles and links. The idea is to add each row across so it adds to the number written at left without repeating any digits 1-9.  Then do the same for the vertical rows with the number at the top.  So if you look at the top left, you need to add two numbers to get 4.  Only 3 and 1 work.  Then you need to figure out which order they need to be written.  It is good fun, simple to understand yet often challenging to solve.

I still am jazzed on crossword puzzles and kenken, and those books still litter the house, but at the moment, kakuro holds my interest the most.  In fact, I need to stop typing now.  I have a puzzle left unfinished from earlier.

Dropping Electricity Use

For a while we were pretty consistent with our electric bill.  We had a bump here or there, a jump in usage that we usually could not definitively explain, but we averaged 400 kilowatt hours per month.   Before we moved to this house two and a half years ago, I paid attention to how much our bill lowered  my checking account balance, but I paid little attention to how much electricity we used.  Not that we wasted electricity–we did what we could to minimize usage.  I just didn’t pay attention to the actual number.

Now I do pay attention.  Our last electric bill posted only 296 kilowatt hours of electricity.  I was pretty happy with that, especially since it was for most of March.  We use more electricity in the winter and March, in these parts, is definitely winter.  In the winter we keep lights on longer.  The heating system, although it is propane, kicks in and uses electricity.  We don’t use the clothesline but rely on the electric dryer.  We bake with our electric oven more.  We make coffee or tea more often.  We just use a lot more energy in the darker days of the year.

So I was proud that we managed to use less than 300 kilowatt hours for the month.  We haven’t changed our life dramatically, but we have made some changes.  The light bulb thing, although it has been drilled into us all so much we are becoming numb to it, makes a huge difference.  Incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy–you can feel it in the form of heat.  Any incandescent bulb we fave feels to me like it is just spitting electricity into the air.  I feel the heat and I feel energy being wasted.  So we have changed most of our bulbs.  Why not all of them?  We have a bunch of those candle flame shaped fixtures and those bulbs are hard to find in a compact fluorescent version.  But we are slowly getting there.

Every time we change out a couple of light bulbs it seems to make a difference.  The other big difference has been turning down the dryer.  We used to always dry everything on the highest setting.  Once we turned it down to the medium heat setting we could see a difference on our electric bill right away.  We do wash lots of clothes.  We have a couple of small children in the house.  Once we can start using the clothesline again (soon!) we will use even less electricity.

We don’t have cable box on our television that sucks energy 24/7, and now that Vermont has switched to digital–and we still don’t have a converter box–we can’t watch any television at all.  We watch DVD’s but not as often as we might now that the weather is warmer and we are spending more time outside.  We will start grilling soon and use the stove less.  I am hoping that on one of these bills we be able to get it down under 200 kilowatt hours.  That may be tight but it is possible, I am sure.

I am glad we don’t have a 5,000 square foot home.  That would make our challenge even harder.  I still see people who leave light on all the time, even when they are not home.  That just seems like kind of a Duh!  I try to avoid the Duhs.  Next month–going for 280.

Feeling Alive

At the moment, my son is driving his toy cars off an old board onto the frozen lawn.  The sun is shining.  His down jacket is unzipped.  His pant cuffs are soaked through.  He is, although not consciously, supremely happy.  Watching him makes me so as well.

Today I had a meeting in town.  I rode my bike to get there.  I should ride my bike more often, or so I have told myself many times.  Doing so today made me realize that I have been right.  I rode only about three miles each way–not far–but I felt great.  On the way in, the temperature was in the twenties.  Leavensworth Road, my route to avoid traffic, was frozen.  It was so frozen in a couple of spots that I had to walk.  I felt the cold, the wind, my muscles moving.  I felt alive.

It seems so simple:  I take a little more time to ride rather than drive and I feel so much better.  The only disadvantage to biking is that it takes more time.  Most of the time that isn’t even a disadvantage.  As long as I have the time to take, it is worth it.  The ride home was muddy.  Leavensworth Road had thawed out.  I got a little splattered but I had fun, I got a bit tired and I smelled the world rather than just zipped by it.  I need to do that more often.

On Saturday I stood in front of 400 people and presented a bunch of information about paying for college.  I had planned for it and I had been looking forward to it.  Five minutes before start time I realized that I felt a little nervous;  not much, but enough that I forgot to introduce myself.  Other than that it went well.  I think I provided enough information in a way that worked for most people.  Driving home (too far to bike that day), I felt great.

I realized that the positive feeling came from my pushing myself.  That was the largest crowd to which I had presented, and the topic is one that those present feel is important, even have anxiety over, so I took some risks.  I took a risk even volunteering to do it.  Because I took risks, however, because I stepped outside my comfort zone, the reward was high enough to make me feel pretty good.

I need to take on these challenges more frequently.  I need to take risks, to push myself, to try new things.  A lesson for me, one I have learned more than a few times, is that I need to simply step forward and try.  When opportunites come my way that seem intimidating, I need to say yes.  It is easy to stay within my comfort zone.  It is easy to do more of what I already know.  But if I want to feel alive, I need to make things a little harder for myself.

On my ride this morning, my biggest fear was not that I would be late or that I would forget how to ride, but that I would get stuck in my peddle clips.  I have a tough time getting out of them sometimes.  I practiced on the driveway on my way out, in fact.  Nonetheless, when I had to stop to cross a big patch of ice, I could not get my left foot out, leaned that way, and hit the dirt, literally.  It made me grumpy for a moment, but then I remembered how fortunate I was to be where I was, doing something so amazing.  I took a fall, but I got up and kept going.

That’s the thing.  I can’t be afraid to take a fall.  So I get a little dirty and my ego gets bruised.  So what?  No one but me even had to know it happened.  So often we are afraid to let others know we have made a mistake, and that makes us afraid to take a risk where we might make a mistake.  But I don’t want to sit with friends and tell them how I almost tried something but didn’t.  I want to give them a good story, and often the best stories are ones where we fall down but then get up and keep going and, ultimately, are rewarded.  That is the kind of story I want to tell.

If we take risks enough, we feel comfortable, given some time.  We can get in the groove.  Before long, we can be happy without even knowing why.  If we are lucky, we are happy without even being aware of it.  And if we take the time to pick up our pile of toy cars from the grass, we might even get the chance to try it again.

Getting in a Few Miles

So the deal is this.  I would like to run the Vermont 50 in September.  That’s 50 miles.  I’ve done it before.  I wanted to do it this past fall.  That was not in the cards.  I have plenty of time to make it happen.  I’ll tell you, though, it isn’t easy to get the miles in during the winter.  It is cold, it is slippery, I have to wear lots of clothing, I get sweaty, the roads are narrower, I use more energy, yada yada yada.

My schedule needs to match well in the winter, too.  Getting up early is fine when the sun gets up early, but these days I need to be long home by the time the sun gets to rising.  I do love to run early, but when it is 1 degree, like this morning, and dark and breezy and slippery…  You see where I’m headed.

This is why people don’t do things like this, I realize.  It is easy to make excuses.  It is easy to make other things a priority.  It is the accumulation of runs that makes it attractive to me.  Any given run might be a drag, or it might be amazing, but piling them all up makes for some feel-good stuff.  So I need to make it happen.

It will take time, I know that.  I will do a couple more short weeks of twenty miles or so.  Then I need to start getting in some longer runs.  By the time spring comes, I will hopefully be in the position to take advantage of the warmer weather right away.  When I ran the marathon in Burlington every year, I was always amazed at how many people I would see running once it got warm out.  I would have the roads to myself, as I do now, until the fair weather runners came out.

Already I feel pretty good.  Today was 10 degrees but I felt fine.  I got in a few miles before I had to meet my daughter getting off the bus.  I will run again this weekend, both Saturday and Sunday if all goes well.  I won’t get in that many miles for the week, but enough for now.  Once I get into it, I look forward to the next run.  I am starting to feel that way now.  My run today was too short.  I can’t wait until I can take the time to run the eleven mile loop.

That will feel like I am getting in the miles.  Then maybe 50 miles will seem within reach.

KENKEN

I have been pretty much way into crossword puzzles the past few months.  Late this summer I purchased a book of 300 crossword puzzles and scribbled away every day.  I just completed them all, and that includes going back to the few I skipped and completing those.  I have a few more shorter books of them but I just got introduced to KENKEN.

This was a holiday gift from my wife, who was aware of my puzzle fanaticism and who thought I might enjoy the new challenge.  I have.  I have been somewhat into Sudoku, a craze that most people are aware of by now.  KENKEN is similar to Sudoku (a 9×9 grid with some of the boxes filled with numbers, the goal being to fill in all the boxes without repeating a number in any horizontal row, vertical row or smaller 3×3 grid).    The difference here is that some math is involved.

The book I have starts with easy puzzles.  The grids are 3×3.  I blasted through them but they gave me a sense of how to solve the puzzles.  The book ends with 5×5 puzzles.  These are still relatively easy and I am afraid I will have to advance to more difficult ones.  Here is a fairly easy example (from www.Kenken.com):

Easier KENKEN Puzzle

Easier KENKEN Puzzle

And here is a more difficult example (from Wikipedia):

A Tougher One

A Tougher One

As you can see, the first one has simple addition and subtraction, while the second one also contains multiplication and division.  I am ready to leap fully into those.

So far I have done well but I am still working on the easier puzzles.  I will need to go out and get a more advanced book.  I am hooked.  Sudoku is fine.  I have had some fun with that.  But I never got jazzed on it the way I am with these.  I will not give up on crossword puzzles.  I still have lots of those in the house to work on.  I will, however, be busy with KENKEN for a while.