Raygrets; or, Adventures in bureaucracy

In my hand I am holding an unopened farewell card from M, dated March 2008. I am going to open it.

Later. I will open it later.

See, anticipation is the best part, and anxiety is the worst. The trick is to balance the anticipation with the anxiety, the promise with the purgatory.

The point I’m not getting at is: I am now a free agent.

Since being laid off from Raytheon last Monday [1], I’ve had plenty of time to… ponder. That’s a funny word. Ponder. Pondering. If I say it often enough, it sounds like I’m doing something deep and meaningful, not just pacing around an apartment, cleaning the kitchen counter for the sixteenth time and trying to avoid the urge to write a vicious screed about my recently concluded Professional Experience. I hope you understand what I’m hinting at, otherwise you might have to sit down with me over a beer or two and let me give you the full theatrical performance, complete with hand gestures and full body spasms and grinding teeth.

Instead, I’ll leave you with an iconic line from one of my managers, and we’ll move on to other things. I believe this is called mentoring:

“When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but I had it beaten out of me and I’ll beat it out of you, too.”

Indeed.

And with that, I throw the last nineteen months of my professional life on the pyre and burn the thing to the ground–ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

* * * * *

Do you know what occupies my mind right now? Not much. That’s really why I’m writing these words, not for pity–and the first one of you that says, “I’m sorry,” will be the first against the wall–but for clarity. I follow my instincts, but I also try to edit and salvage the Idea from the Junk.

Did I learn everything I know from working at Boy Scout camp? Maybe. What occurs to me now is the summer of 1999, when I helped teach knot-tying to hyperactive twelve-year-olds. P, an assistant Scoutmaster from Troop 200, taught me how to untie knots. Have you ever tangled a rope or cord so thoroughly that throwing the thing away seemed more fitting than investing the time to untangle it? Some knots will frustrate you. A frustrated human will pull rashly at the rope, tightening the knot, making the problem worse.

The trick is, paradoxically, to make the knot bigger–to “bird’s nest” it, as P said. Leave the free ends of the rope alone and pull the constricted loops out until the result is a pillowy ball of rope, a bird’s nest. Then you have room to trace the ends back through from where they came.

That’s what I tell myself I’m doing. I like that version of the story. It sounds like a parable, that I’m unknotting the rope before starting again. If I told you that I’ve actually been mulling around for eight days in a fog because I haven’t summoned the constitution or the maturity to do exactly what I’ve often threatened to do–to define what I want and to do it my own way–then I’d have to tell you some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself… that I’d rather not admit to right now. [2]

Anyway, it is a good place to start: untangle, then untie, then… [This space intentionally left blank.]

I never understood the revulsion that some friends had to working for superbureaucracies, but now I get it. To work for a large organization is to trade control for security. Oversimplifying this as a continuum of control versus pay, I’d rather have more control than pay. The pay was handsome, but it wasn’t enough to offset the emptiness. Now, I don’t think money is the root of all evil or that large organizations are bad, but I’ve learned from experience that there are certain environments that I like and others that I do not like.

And who chose the job in the large corporation? Me. I should thank them for cutting the cord because I didn’t have the courage to reach over my wallet and do it myself. I am aware of how sanctimonious this sounds.

I haven’t worked out what’s next yet, except to say that what’s next isn’t a hellbent dash to Get a Job. I have ideas. They don’t belong in this post.

* * * * *

Let’s step backwards for a moment. Let’s touch down briefly at Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. It is March 2008, I am a systems engineer on an actual aerospace system, and I am still invincible. I am leaving to go to Texas for something that will not turn out well. I have a farewell card from M, but since I have not opened it yet, I do not know that it says:

Good luck with taking a new path in life!

Stay positive, confident, and you can achieve anything. Our short conversations were enlightening and entertaining, and I’ll miss the riddles you speak. Take care.

Indeed, M, it was an immense pleasure to work with you, as well. I wish you had packed some of my confidence in that envelope so that I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for creating it myself now.

 


  1. Erin Allworth, “Raytheon is trimming its workforce,” The Boston Globe, 9 Nov 2010. Now, I’m not angry at all about being laid off, not even a little bit. What makes me angry is that they also laid off A, a college new hire that had been on the job for six weeks. Welcome to the workforce, kid, now get the hell out of here. [back to text]
  2. “I woke up at 3am with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on about she’d rather live in his world with him than live in her own world alone, and I laid there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh, get a life!‘ ” [back to text]

Chicago Marathon 2010: Postmortem

All training before before the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and every line I’m thinking here to describe the marathon now that it’s over, centers on one thought: three hours and ten minutes. 3:10–that’s the Boston Marathon qualifying standard for my age group.

No suspense: my time was 3:21:46. Eleven minutes and 46 seconds too long. 706 seconds too many. 17 seconds per kilometer over budget.

Well, damn.

Before the race I thought I had 3:10 in the bag. I even entertained some delusions of breaking three hours because training had gone so well. I had the summer distance training in my portfolio, including personal records of 98 km in a week and two consecutive months of over 300 km. I finished a 50 km trail race three weeks before the marathon. (A marathon is 42.195 km). The length of the marathon itself was no longer intimidating. It seemed only a matter of lining up at the start and doing the thing.

So: let’s take it from the start.

From the start, the race progressed beautifully. I started too far back in the pack, about eight minutes off the line. I meant to start farther up, near the 3:00 pace group, but Dad and I had some difficulties parking that morning. I tried to lead us to the parking lot under Millenium Park, but the only entrance to Lower Wacker Drive that I knew–I am not a Chicagoan, no, no–was blocked by construction. We tried to improvise, but with the city streets closing down, block by block, we managed to only trundle through Downtown like rats in a maze. We found a place near Monroe and Desplaines, where I sent him ahead to the start line while I parked the truck–in part because I knew I could get to the line faster than him, but mainly because I didn’t want him to see how far I was going to drive his truck in reverse the wrong way down a one way street to get to the lot entrance. Better that he collapses during the race, not during parking.

Anyway. The first quarter was slow, as expected. It’s a big herd and it takes time to disperse. Keep to the sides where there is room to squirt around the pack. Don’t screw around with weaving through the middle.

At the half marathon mark, I was at 1:37:49. I needed a negative split for the final half, 1:32:11, but I anticipated this and was not worried. Nevermind that my best (only) half marathon time was a 1:43:07. I was in control.

I increased my pace slightly through the third quarter of the race. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, my favorite part of any race, the stretch where a runner’s mind starts to crumble under the combined weight of effort exerted in the first half and the finish line still so far away–an aura of suffering radiates from the plodding crowd.

The inflection point, the crossover from rising to falling, was near 34 km, just 8 km from the finish line. After that my legs began to shatter into pieces. It started as an inconvenience in my left calf muscle, which steadily became a problem–the functional equivalent of running with a slab of meat for a lower left leg instead of the well-tuned machine it had been for the first two-and-a-half hours. I started to fall back from the sub-4:30/km pace I was holding, and then began to punctuate that pace with bouts of hopping in the middle of the street.

Did you see a guy in a white bandana and yellow shirt, jumping up and down on one leg while yelling obscenities at the cramps in the other leg? Yes. Well. Hmm. Nice to meet you.

Later my hamstrings began to howl. I have never experienced that. My pace slackened further. I walked at the Mile 21 aid station, understanding that this would make finishing under 3:10 mathematically more difficult, but hoping that the brief quiet period would let me recuperate for a final attack.

I did not attack.

I could regale you with more details about pain and cramps and heat and other external factors–external in the sense that I could not control them as they occurred–but I don’t think they were the culprits. The truth cuts closer to the bone: (1) I trained hard, but wrong; (2) I stepped away from The Edge.

All of my long training runs–longer than 15 km–were trail runs. I enjoy running trails better than sidewalks and roads. I worried about combining high mileage with too much pavement–it seemed like a recipe for stress fractures.

The result is that I was trained for distance, but not the right kind of distance. Trail running is slower than road running. I think trail running is more difficult–more elevation change, more accelerating in and out of turns, more high knee running due to obstacles–but it does not prepare one mentally and physically for road running. My hamstrings weren’t trained for roads, and when those muscles began to behave badly–a novel experience for me–my brain responded with panic.

I am still incredulous of the end of the race. I was not exhausted by the marathon. I could have run another 10 or 20 miles–if, of course, I could have bent my cramped, ugly legs, something I couldn’t do with any facility until the next day.

I didn’t do enough fast training runs. I don’t mean track running, 400m and 800m intervals, I did those, but running more 8 km and 10 km and other distances at marathon pace or faster. A related mistake, perhaps, was not competing before the marathon. I ran the Escarpment Trail Run, the Bradford Bruiser, and the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race, but those were competitions versus myself, not against a fixed goal. Completing a distance and the blood instinct of racing the clock are different animals; running versus racing. Racing is running, but it is running with an edge–the conviction to get in the ring with fear and uncertainty and pain and just whale on the bastards until the clock runs out.

The second one, The Edge, is delicate. I don’t know, truly, how much I could have pushed those last 8 km. How uncooperative were my legs, really? Did I panic when the atypical pain arrived? Two days later, and seated in front of an air conditioning vent, I can’t accurately recall. Having survived, I know there was space between where I was and The Edge. How much? How much could I have pushed the preceding 34 km?

That line of questioning will stop now.

A more interesting question is: What’s Next?

Plus twenty

Runners learn — the hard way, naturally — that there is an invisible barrier at the 20-mile mark known as The Wall, the point where you’ve burned off the body’s ready-to-use chemical energy.

You remember the feeling. Your thoughts, once as free and fluid as your running, turn to viscous sludge, like wet concrete. Your legs abruptly submit their resignation. All vital signs, as measured by your sodden brain, point toward system collapse.

The Wall. Bonk.

After you’ve hit the wall once, you wait for it to rear its head on the next 20-miler. If you’re training for a marathon, the whole 26.2-mile marathon, you should run a few 20-milers as part of your training. The Wall… you know it’s out there, lurking — a real, physical, insidious thing out there, stalking you from behind a bush at the 20-mile mark.

If it wasn’t already there waiting for you, chances are you’ve conjured it by worrying about it. Running is more than a physical battle, it is also a psychological battle; running is many psychological battles, and some of them are fought before you even lace your shoes. When you see a 20-mile run coming on your calendar, you grind your teeth and remember what a savage experience that last one was.

But hey, we survived that, and we came back for more.

What I’m enjoying — yes, enjoying — about training for the upcoming Chicago Marathon this year is that I’ve finally whipped The Wall at 20 miles. My last three training runs at that distance have been successes. Compare this to my previous two 20-mile training runs, back in May, were not successes — they were very much a rude reminder that will is only part of the equation in running.

What changed?

Aside from familiarity with the distance — just getting into the ring with the brute — I’d say that the biggest change is adding some nutrition to my body while running. I’ve never eaten much while running — partly from stubbornness (the tough don’t need fuel), partly from curiosity (let’s see what happens when I run the tank completely dry). So even during the Pineland Farms 50 km race in May I ate nothing more than a handful of gummy bears at each aid station. I crashed later in the race, but it was interesting to see what it was like. Then I cranked out the Escarpment Trail Run in July, an evil 30 km race in the Catskill Mountains, with nothing more than a handful of M&Ms at one aid station in the middle, followed by a crash at the end. In training I never ate, never drank — and never prospered at long runs.

So much for the zero nutrition control for the experiment.

Now when I go out for a 20-mile run, I pack three PowerBars — Cookies and Cream flavor, which seem to be (a) slightly moister, i.e., easier to chew and swallow, and (b) the best tasting Power Bar, which is a tallest midget contest if there ever was one — and 24 ounces of water in my Delaney fit Camelbak. (Indulge me this foray into “gear.” I despise talking about “gear.” )

(“Gear.”)

This has worked well for me. On a 20-mile run, I stop and walk at five, ten, and fifteen miles, eat a PowerBar, drink some water, then run again. I feel like this is cheating a little, this walking while running, but what the hell? This routine contributed to a successful 20-mile run, which fed my confidence, which contributed to another successful 20-mile run, fed confidence, contributed to a successful 21-mile run.

Scheduling the calorie breaks at specific distances makes the system work. If I ever stopped on previous long runs, it was due to the feeling that I needed to stop — that my body was pulling the emergency cord on the train, lurching the system to jerking halt. That kind of stop jangles your nerves, and twenty miles offers the runner too much time to consider the causes of the stop over and over and over. Stopping right at five, ten, and fifteen lets the conscious brain think it is in charge. Placate that damned thing and you could probably run forever.


A note to the curious, i.e., if you’re at this edge of this post, I’m likely looking at you and saying: I’ve cross-posted this to rungorarun.kirkkittell.com/post/21. My, my, that looks like an evil plan there. I won’t cross-post everything, due to that being an overly self-indulgent thing to do, so I also invite you to subscribe to the feed: feeds.feedburner.com/rungorarun.

Organizing the history of Ingersoll Scout Reservation (in Drupal)

Since 1998 I have been maintaining an online history of Ingersoll Scout Reservation — specifically, a history the staff who have worked there every summer since 1965. It’s an impractical obsession — both the maintenance of the history and the summers at camp.

Sometimes I wonder why I do it. At the outside, only a thousand or so people — all of the staff since 1965 — could possibly be interested. What use is my time investment there? What does it matter?

But what the hell? I learned most of what I know about leadership and communication and responsibility there. I tend to latch on to that experience as a fixed reference point from which I can measure my progress. Ultimately I don’t justify my work on that website in terms of productivity or utility or page hits or any practical measure of success or failure. For good or for ill, that is my tribe, and my goal is to celebrate them and keep them in contact with each other.

In April I was going to write a story here about how I organized all of the staff rosters from 1965 to 2010. It was going to be an arcane story about the wizardry I performed with MediaWiki, how I linked each staff member to the years they worked at camp, and each year to the staff member who worked there, and each staff member to the various program areas where they worked. It was a maze of wiki templates and taxonomy. It was thorough to the point of being clinically obsessive. It was elegant and massive.

I did the bulk of it in one day. I woke up irritated one Saturday morning, 4am, then worked until 2am transcribing the old rosters to the wiki, then creating individual pages for each staff member.

It felt good to complete it. It felt good to sit down, decide that it was going to be Done, and then do it — even if it was covered in the strange rime of total social inadequacy that is demonstrated by sitting immobile on a couch for nearly a full day.

The wiki was wonderful, but it was inflexible. To change the layout of the rosters or the individual pages would require changing every… single… page, all one thousand or so pages. What I wanted was all of that information to be stored in a database so that I could mix it whatever way I wanted.

I had no idea how to do this. I needed to break down the information into fields. My first thought was to make this all happen on a single page, that is, that each staff member page would have enough fields to store info about each of their years. The information that needed to be stored for each summer camp consists of a program area, a position, and the year itself. That’s only three fields — not so bad. But someone who worked at camp for 10 years would need thirty fields. Ranger Kevin would need over 60 fields. So this all needed to be decentralized somehow. How?

Then I had an ah-ha moment. Each year at camp was a separate event. One table in the database could be just these events. Each record would have the previous three fields (year, program area, position) plus the name of the staff member in another field. Then the database could be queried to show the records for a certain staff member or a certain year. Now I could deal with a maximum of four fields instead of 60 or more.

This is an intensely dull thing to get excited about. But I’ll take it where I can get it.

I created a mockup. I tested it. It worked. And I jumped in for another round of Total Immersion to transfer information from one place to another. Thousands of nodes later I got the job done. I wrote more about that at isrstaff.org/node/2695.

Now I’m done with the structural elements of maintaining the staff history. There remains the task of finding missing rosters, collecting photos, and getting the old I mean former staff to share stories, but this is the fun part. It is a limited history — limited time, limited place — but the people and the experiences are rich when you get to know them.


What follows from here is how I set this up in Drupal. It is not interesting to read. I post it here in case someone out there finds it useful.

Setup

Custom content types

The history relies on three custom content types: names; staff records; and pictures. Each of these content types uses the Content Construction Kit (CCK) module to define extra fields.

First, names of all staff members must be added to the database. Names have two fields: first name; last name. Names come first because the the other two custom node types refer to names.

Staff records note the details of one person’s experience at one year of summer camp. Staff records contain six fields: name; year; area; position; camp; and sort order.

  • Name. This is a Nodereference field that refers to the Names content type. This associates the staff record with a particular person.
  • Year. The year will do two things: (1) this record will be shown on the corresponding year’s roster; (2) this record will be shown in the list of years on a staff member’s bio. For example, the staff record of me in Scoutcraft in 1998 will be shown (1) on the 1998 staff roster and (2) on my staff bio.
  • Area. There are different program areas at camp, e.g., aquatics (the pool and lakefront), handicraft (woodcarving, etc.), Scoutcraft (camping, pioneering, orienteering, etc.). Each roster is organized by program area: first the camp administration, then the aquatics staff, and so on.
  • Position. This is the staff member’s job for the summer, from counselors in training to assistants to camp director.
  • Camp. This is for future improvements, namely capturing the histories from former Boy Scout camps like Camp Wokanda.
  • Sort. This is an integer that sorts the records on the roster page. The rosters are organized by program areas, each of which has its own hierarchy with directors at the top and assistants at the bottom. Smaller sort numbers rise, larger numbers sink. So, a program area director will be given a low sort number and a program assistant will be given a high sort number.

Finally, there are pictures. Staff can upload photos from camp, which include the following fields:

  • Picture. This is the picture to upload. It relies on the ImageField (and, subsequently, FileField) module.
  • Year. Including the year allows the picture to be shown on the corresponding roster page for that year.
  • Staff. Same as the staff record, this is a Nodereference field that refers to the Names content type. Choosing a staff member here will show the picture on his or her bio.

After creating these three content types I copied and pasted the data from the wiki, creating nearly 1,000 names and nearly 1,500 staff records. This was as much fun as it sounds.

Image setup

An uploaded photo could be large, over 2000 by 3000 pixels, which is too big to be useful in screen displays. I wanted a medium size image to display on screen, plus thumbnails to show on other pages. To accomplish this I installed the ImageCache module, which depends on ImageAPI. ImageCache requires installation of either GD or ImageMagick toolkits. I used ImageMagick because GD tended to choke on the full size picture uploads.

In the ImageCache settings, I created two new settings:

  • Medium. Action: Scale. Settings: 500×500. The original file would be scaled to fit in a 500 pixel by 500 pixel box; the longer edge of the photo would be scaled down to 500 pixels and the shorter edge would be scaled down to match the original aspect ratio of the image.
  • Thumbnail. Action: Scale. Settings: 100×100.

Staff biographies

Staff biography panel, take 1

To display a staff biography, I used Views and Panels. First, from the Panels page manager, I enabled the “node template” page then added a new variant.

  • Title: Staff biography
  • Variant type: Panel
  • Optional features: Selection rules
  • Selection rule: Node: type
    • Node: Node being viewed
    • Node type: Name

What this means is that anytime someone visits a staff biography (remember: a name content type) this panel will be shown. What I want to show on this panel is a staff member’s years of experience, pictures, and a text biography.

The text biography is simple. This is the standard “body” of a node. I pull it into the panel via Add content > Node > Node body. I pull in the other two — years, pictures — with views.

View 1: bio_years

I called the first view bio_years, which displays years and positions on staff.

Filters

  • Node: Published > Published: Yes. A standard thing — I only want published nodes shown, not drafts.
  • Node: Type > Operator: is one of > Node type: Staff record. I want this view to only show staff records.

Relationships

  • Content: Name. This is the nodereference field from staff records.

Arguments

  • Node: Nid
    • Relationship: Name. This is the key setting. When someone visits a staff bio, I want only the records related to that particular bio to be displayed. The Nid (node ID) is a unique number for a node. When a staff record is created, the nodereference field refers to a specific Nid. “Relationship: Name” allows only nodes where the Content:Name nodereference field refers to the node being visited.
      For example, my staff bio is located at isrstaff.org/node/102 — the Nid is 102. On all staff records related to me, the Content:Name refers to Nid:102; so when you visit my staff bio only the staff records referring to node 102 are shown.
      (Maybe it’s a bit overwrought to describe this, but it took me a long time to wrap my head around how relationships worked in Views. Once I figured it out, it opened up a world of possibilities. Clearly I am no genius.)
    • Action to take if argument is not present: Display empty text.

Fields

  •  Content: Year.
  • Content: Name.
  • Node: Edit link. If you were a logged in member, you would see beside each record a link to edit that record.
  • Global: Custom text. This field combines the year, name, and edit link into a single line.

Sort criteria

  • Content: Year > Sort order: Ascending. Orders the staff records by earliest year first.

To test this view I used 102 as the argument for Nid. What is displayed is the following, a list of each of the years and positions I worked at camp:

View 2: bio_pictures

The second view, bio_pictures, is similar to the previous view except it will find the uploaded pictures related to a given staff member.

Basic settings

  • Style: Grid
  • Row style: Fields

Filters

  • Node: Published > Published: Yes.
  • Node: Type > Operator: is one of > Node type: Picture.

Relationships

  • Content: Staff. This is the nodereference field that notes the staff members in the picture.

Arguments

  • Node: Nid
    • Relationship: Staff. This shows only pictures related to the bio being displayed.
    • Action to take if argument is not present: Display empty text.

Fields

  • Content: Picture.
    • Format: Thumbail image linked to node. This is the thumbnail created earlier with ImageCache.

This will show, using Nid 102 again, uploaded pictures tagged with my name:

Staff biography panel, take 2

Now we can go back to the staff bio panel and add the views. In a single column format, I add the following content:

  • Views > bio_years
    • Node: NID: Node ID. This is the context selected for the view. This is what sends the Node ID of the node being viewed to the views so that only the relevant person’s records are shown.
  • Views > bio_pictures
    • Node: NID: Node ID.
  • Node > Node body. The names also have a text area for further description of the staff member.

And that is how an individual’s staff bio is created. Mine looks like this:

Staff rosters

I wanted a page for every year of summer camp from 1965 to 2010, each with a list of the staff and their positions, each with a custom /history/YYYY URL. I did this by creating a custom panel page called staff_years that pulls in two views, staff_years and gallery.

View 1: staff_years

Filters

  • Node: Published > Published: Yes.
  • Node: Type > Operator: is one of > Node type: Staff record.

Relationships

  • Content: Name. This is the nodereference field that connects the staff record to a particular name.

Arguments

  • Content: Year
    • Title: %1 Staff. The title of the page will be set to whichever year is being called, e.g., 1972 Staff.
    • Action to take if argument is not present: Display empty text.

Fields

  • Content: Area.
  • Content: Position.
  • Content: First name.
    • Relationship: Name. Each staff record node has a Content:Name nodereference field that selects from the list of names. Each name node has a field for Content:First name. This field looks for the name that the staff record is related to (i.e., that the nodereference refers to) and then finds the first name entered in that node.
  • Content: Last name.
    • Relationship: Name.
  • Node: Edit link. Users with edit permissions will see a link to edit each record.
  • Global: Custom text. This field combines all of the previous fields on a single line.

Sort criteria

  • Content: Area > Ascending.
  • Content: Sort > Ascending. Sort by hierarchy within the area.

Basic settings

  • Style: HTML list
    • Grouping field: Content: Area. The program areas are a major division in the camp hierarchy. Instead of showing the program area on each line, putting it as a grouping field will use the program area as a sort of header between lists, as shown below.

Using 2005 as an input argument, this is what this view will produce:

View 2: gallery

Basic settings

  • Style: Grid

Filters

  • Node: Published > Published: Yes.
  • Node: Type > Operator: is one of > Node type: Picture.

Relationships

  • Node: Content profile. The website uses the Content profile module for collecting profile information from users. This relationship will find the profile information of the person who created the picture.

Arguments

  • Content: Year
    • Action to take if argument is not present: Display empty text.

Fields

  • Content: Picture.
    • Format: Thumbnail image linked to node. This is the 100 pixel thumbnail defined earlier in the ImageCache settings.
  • Node: Title.
  • Content: First name.
    • Relationship: Content profile. This field looks for the Content profile of the user that uploaded the file, then finds the first name of that profile.
  • Content: Last name.
    • Relationship: Content profile.
  • Global: Custom text. This field combines all of the previous fields.

The finished view, using 2005 again for the argument, looks like this:

Panel

To create a single panel that would serve for all years, I created a placeholder, %year, to be derived from the URL: http://isrstaff.org/history/%year. I assigned the context for the %year argument to be a string.

I added the staff_years and gallery views as content to the panel. In the configuration for both views, I set the context for Content: Year to “Raw string.” This means that the year derived from the URL will be used as an argument for the two views.

The end result for the year 2005 can be viewed here: isrstaff.org/history/2005. Or you can view any of the other years at isrstaff.org/history.

Pictures

First — and I won’t explain this because it was an easy view to set up — there is a gallery that shows all uploaded pictures.

Second, I went back to the Panels page manager and created a variant of the node template for picture content type. In this panel, I added content for:

  • Node > Field: Picture (field_picture) – File. This is the picture itself. The default for the picture content type, before creating the panel, was to display the uploaded picture — which could be a 3000 pixel wide monster that stretched far off the page. However, when adding this field to the panel, there is an option in the configuration settings called “Field formatter.” The default is “Generic files.” Switch that to “medium image linked to image” and it will display a nice, neat medium-sized image that will fit in a 500 pixel box as defined earlier in the ImageCache settings.
  • Node > Field group: Picture information in Picture. This containts the fields for the year and tagged staff in the picture.
  • Node > Node body. Description of the picture.

For an example, see this photo of Andy and I.

A Run in the Woods: Escarpment Trail Run 2010

The Escarpment Trail Run is a 30 km race up and down a hiking trail in the Catskill Mountains in New York. Two hundred people are allowed to enter after going through an application process that begs them not to. (Bears! Bees! Broken bones! Bruises!) There are casualties. There is pain.

Mountain goats only

It was awesome. There are no medals for participating. There are no t-shirts handed out (the one above was purchased). There are no awards for winners. This is the essence of sport and it’s often hard to find in an organized event. Thank you, Dick Vincent, for putting it together. That’s my kind of race.

First things first: hooray for the Escarpment Trail Run volunteers.

Who is crazier than the 200 runners in the field? The volunteers. Sure, we ran up the mountains, but these guys started early and backpacked the water and other supplies to each of the three peaks and several places in between. And they were nice, too. Had I been a volunteer, I would have been a rotten, surly bastard from the hike.

So, thank you all. I don’t know why you do it but I know a good therapist if you need one.

Listen: I am not a trail runner. I posed as one to get in the race. Trail running is a different beast. To run the trails is to dance with the obstacles on the trail. Misjudge a step, face the consequences.

You may never see a trail runner in the wild. If you do, remain calm. Don’t make any sudden movements. They only want to get past you because you are standing between them and the beer and medical supplies at the end of the trail.

Trail running is different. There are trail running shoes. How they got hiking boots and running shoes to mate together I don’t want to know, but apparently it helps for navigating the boulders on the trail. I do not have trail running shoes. I am a cheapskate. And I am not a trail runner.

The race is run on a hiking trail. At the start, two hundred people funnel immediately into a single file line and start up — literally and immediately: up — the trail to Windham High Peak. I wound up in the back half of this line. That’s OK. I expected a rough day and wanted to start slow to avoid crashing utterly at the end.

View larger map | See the trail in Google Earth

The first part of the run is a walk as everyone gets sorted out. Some people like to do the running-in-place-at-a-stoplight thing when the going is slow. I prefer to do the Terminator Walk. It’s more menacing. And on it goes, nose to butt, for a kilometer or so, then I started moving forward through the pack.

The trouble is that it is a single-wide trail, so passing is treacherous. Fortunately trail runners communicate well. If you ask to pass they’ll let you by, or when they hear you coming, they offer to let you pass. When you pass or get passed there is also some good natured banter. “Let me know when you want to pass.” “Not yet, I’m dying.” “Not if I die first.” Et cetera. It takes that kind of system to make the race work. If you don’t take the race seriously enough, you crash and burn. If you take the race too seriously, you crash and burn. But there is a sweet spot in the middle where you crash and enjoy it.

On and on, up and up, to Windham High Peak, where volunteers were at the ready with Gatorade and water and cookies. Saints, all of them.

Then: down, down.

Trail runners love the downhills. Running downhill takes skill and practice. I hate the downhills. Give me uphills all day but keep the downhills to yourself. I am not a trail runner.

After Windham High Peak, there was this guy. He was amazing — utterly amazing. I shall refer to him now as The Cannonball. Why? He boomed down the mountain like a cannonball. If he had run off the trail and hit a tree he would have smashed the damned thing into boards and toothpicks. But he didn’t. Also, to move at that speed, over boulders and trees and around corners, let’s just say that he has certain anatomical features that are the size and composition of cannonballs. Ahem.

The tagline for the Escarpment Trail Run is “mountain goats only.” I am not a mountain goat. I was in awe of these guys giving themselves to the downhill trails in ways that could only result in brutal armbreaking falls for non-trail runners. Like me. Sometimes I would try to follow just to see what it was like to move so gracefully on the edge of catastrophe but I always backed off and waited for the flat and uphill sections. I couldn’t hack the downhills like the pros.

There are three types of uphills on the course. There are some sections that I could run. There are some sections that were a little too steep to run without burning out my legs, so I would use my Terminator Walk. Then, on Blackhead Mountain there is a third kind: climbing. Hands and feet. Go up and look at that elevation profile again. The bump in the middle is Blackhead. Sure, the application said there would be hand-over-fist climbing. But. I didn’t think it would be “hand-over-fist climbing,” per se. Somewhere in the Catskill Mountains I could hear Dick Vincent cackling madly.

On the way down from Blackhead, one of the other runners who had not died in previous Escarpment runs offered me some key advice. He explained the approach to the third and final peak, Stoppel Point, in terms I could understand. He said that if I knew what was coming, I could make it to the top without crying. Under normal circumstances I would have been indignant and intentionally ignored his advice. Crying? No, sir, I am A Man. Here, though, I hung on his every word. Besides, I was very nearly crying already, so what the hell.

The advice was simple. He said the final ascent had three distinct steps, i.e., up, level, up, level, up. If you didn’t know that, you might get over the first or second, winded and tired but satisfied that you had beat the mountain, only to be mentally ambushed by another ascent. Commence tears.

That was helpful advice. And he said once you made it to the top — which is distinctly marked by an airplane crash site, with the airplane right there by the trail — that you were home free, nothing but down, down, down.

What great news. I pictured an easy glide down the Champs-Élysées, drinking champagne, smiling with the other runners, etc. Looks like we made it after all, etc.

Hell no.

The end was the most technical part of the race. And at this point my brain was shot. Of course everyone is physically tired, but it was the mental tiredness that I was not prepared for. For three hours I had been concentrating on the trail three feet in front of me, picking a broken-ankle-free path over the rocks.

How hard was I concentrating? For the first time in my running career, I did not have any music playing in my head, nothing to hum to, nothing to set the rhythm of my pace to, nothing to retreat to when the going got tough. Nothing. Nothing but weird, ominous silence.

The final downhill was treachery. Maybe it’s my feverish memory of this part of the race, but the rocks seemed bigger, farther spaced. There were more technical sections, i.e., more climbing on hands and feet and butts.

All of these stimuli — where to step, how to step, what to avoid, what to jump — were being fed into a brain completely demented by the previous three hours. Sometimes I would walk stretches of downhill when I realized that I was descending more by luck than intent, bounding down boulders that I wasn’t even seeing because my brain was not processing the visual information at the same rate it was being acquired.

And then you pop out of the woods and it’s over. My goal was to finish under four hours but I fell apart in the final descent. I placed 32nd with a time of 4:09:00. And then we jumped in the lake to cool off.

What a disappointment to go so far and miss, although I am grateful for the chance to be part of the club of Escarpment Trail Run finishers. Does this mean I’ll be back next year to break four hours? Does a trail runner crap in the woods?

Other race reports and photos from the 2010 Escarpment Trail Run:

You can’t get there from here

My parents now live in Chester, Illinois — home of Popeye — which lies on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Therefore I am now fascinated with rivers, especially the Mississippi River. I grew up near the confluence of the Spoon River and the Illinois River, but I didn’t care. I am not a river rat. Give me a mountain instead. Now, however, I at least appreciate rivers.

One of the things I can not possibly explain to you about my newfound attachment to rivers is my enchantment with the ferries that cross them. This seems like a serious anachronism to me. Bridges, see? Bridges. Bridges with their complex steel frames spanning the channels of the river seem, to me, like they should have put all ferries out of business. At the very least, bridges seem modern, like they belong in the technological here-and-now. When I see a ferry I check over my shoulder to make sure there aren’t any pterodactyls flying overhead. So, when I see a ferry crossing our country’s major river, why I simply have to take advantage of the opportunity to use it.

Plus I think it is exciting to be out on the open water. The Mississippi is like a great big moving sea. It is immense and terrifying. Like a mountain, it is too massive to care about something small and insignificant like me. It’s humbling.

The first time I saw a ferry over the Mississippi River was at Grafton, Illinois. On New Years Day 2009 I took a meandering course from Mechanicsburg to Chester. I wanted to see the confluence of the Illinois River and Mississippi River. Why? Because it is there. I didn’t want to go to Missouri that day, so I just sat and watched the Brussels-Grafton Ferry at work on the Illinois River.

Brussels-Grafton Ferry over the Illinois River

(Bonus: here’s a picture from another Mississippi River ferry I saw on this trip, the Ste. Genevieve-Modoc Ferry. Crazy. It’s like there is a secret underworld of hidden river crossings.)

My curiosity was stoked. I had to go back and ride a ferry. In December 2009 I took a meandering course the other direction, from Chester to Mechanicsburg. There I took the Grafton Ferry to Illinois. It was great — whipping winter wind, whitecaps on the water, the slow roll of the boat.

Crossing the Mississippi River at Grafton

OK. Now, let’s go to the present, last week, July 2010. I landed in St. Louis, rented a car, and aimed for Fulton County, Illinois. Of course I was going to take a ferry, but this time I wanted to try a new one — the Golden Eagle Ferry to Calhoun County, Illinois (an interesting place that exists on a peninsula between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

Driving northwest from St. Louis toward the river, it became apparent that spring and summer 2010 have been a little wet down there.

Let's see what this baby can do

Let's go to Illinois

Can't get there from here

Ah well, maybe next time. I backtracked, crossed the river — on a bridge — at Alton, Illinois, stopped for a catfish sandwich at O’Jan’s Hot Fish Sandwiches in Grafton, and heaved and rolled through Illinois River country on IL-100 all the way to Lewistown.

Also, I checked out three books from the library before heading here from Massachusetts: Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (whose works I have not read since they were forced on us in grade school; hey, turns out Twain is actually a funny guy when he’s not being used to bludgeon your fifth-grade skull); Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy Pauketat; and Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry. I wanted to read about the Mississippi while I was by the Mississippi. It seemed only right.

Panoramic Alberta

Back in April I took a too-brief trip to Alberta, Canada because of you-know-why. We drove west out of Calgary, up the Icefields Parkway through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, then east along the Yellowhead Highway to Hinton. I posted a set of pictures from the trip on Flickr. Here I’ve posted a few panoramas to whet your appetite.

One of my hobbies is stitching strings of photos into panoramas. I got hooked on this when I lived in the Mojave for a season. The long, flat horizons are difficult to express in a single shot. A long, flat panorama captures the scene better — gives the viewer a more immersive experience in the environment, just as it was for me when I was there.

Also, why get an image of just one mountain when you can get an image of four?

The Miette Range looming over Talbot Lake (really big version)
Talbot Lake and the Miette Range

The Athabasca River in front of Mount Greenock (really big version)
Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

The Athabasca River running under Mount Fryatt (really big version)
Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

This is one of my best, I think, just for the scene. It’s even better because my lovely assistant is in the photo. (How she tolerates me standing in one place for five minutes taking photos of what must look like the same scene to her is beyond my ken. +10 points for patience.)

Athabasca Falls (really big version)
Athabasca Falls

The funny things about Athabasca Falls is that when we visited it last year, it was absolutely swarming with people — tons and tons of people. Thanks to an unexpected snowstorm on the way up, we had the place to ourselves. Hooray for quietude. Also, that blue, just-melted-from-a-glacier water is amazing.

All of these panoramas were created in Hugin. It is a fine piece of software that you should use if you get the itch to create panoramas yourself.

(“Hey, we found a dead mouse in our beer, eh. That means you owe us a free case.”)

Pilgrimage; or, the creek and the peak

I finally bought the tickets. In July I am going on a semi-irregular pilgrimage — two pilgrimages strung together into one, actually.

First I’m going to Illinois, to Ingersoll Scout Reservation — home. Sometime in the midst of whatever camp staff reunion activities they have planned, I’m going to steal away to Beaver Bend, that 90-degree crook in the Cedar Creek. I’ll sit on the rocks. I’ll scuff at the ground, imagining a fire ring constructed with rocks we dragged up from the bank. I’ll climb the goat path to the Artesian Well. And so on.

Then I will go out to Las Vegas. I told Joe that I’d arrive on a Friday morning. That’s sort of true. My flight arrives just before midnight on Thursday, then I’m renting a car and driving to Death Valley. In the twilight I’m going to climb to Corkscrew Peak.  I don’t know what I’ll do there, maybe just sit on the rocks again. Maybe I’ll read some Desolation Angels there — “And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.” — which seems fitting because I’ll be starting from Jack’s hometown. Or maybe I’ll read a bit of Desert Solitaire — “The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

These are places that, fundamentally, seem to remain constant, though my memory of them stretches and distorts. These are places where I go to measure time and my passage through it. Forgive me my anxiety. These trips are too few and far between. Besides, who knows if this will be the last? Perhaps I should be ashamed of my nostalgia for rocks and rivers, peaks and creeks, things and places. I’m not.

(And in both places I have something to leave behind.)

Two worlds at work

I live in two worlds at work. One is good, one is bad. I created them both. They move in different orbits. Despite my education in orbital mechanics, I don’t know how to predict their paths nor do I know how move them.

The first, my native world, is the bad one. It is a land of belching fumaroles and badlands — a discontented place. This is me at work.

The second is peaceful, positive. Here is where I feel at home but do not reside. This is me at work, but not at work — meaning, the things I do that are not defined as part of my job.

I recognized this today after our weekly Toastmasters meeting. It was a special meeting because HR interjected a group of summer interns into our meeting. Today I was the table topics master. For those not part of the Toastmasters cult: table topics are two-minute extemporaneous speeches on topics defined by the table topics master. My topics? I read a few of my favorite lines from books, and the volunteer speakers had to describe what they were thinking when they wrote the lines as if they were the authors.

What I learned: I have a really good reading voice. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, but I can make that thing boom. I don’t know where that came from, but in a room full of engineers, that’s a remarkable trait.

Later, in the hall of a different building, I intersected with the intern coordinator who was at the meeting. She complimented the meeting and asked why I go to the meetings since I’m so good at speaking. I told her I go because I don’t do any speaking at work, and I don’t want the skill to atrophy. She told me I was being wasted. I told her that I agreed.

At that moment the difference between the two worlds became immediately resolved, as if I were seeing the two through a needed pair of glasses for the first time. Bad vibes and required tasks on one world, good vibes and the freedom to choose on the other — an artificial assignment of value. I fell in the trap of needless martyrdom when she offered the bait. Woe is me, etc., as if my communication skills were intentionally diminished by my evil taskmasters.

One world at a time, eh, Henry?

I’m trying to get better. I’m not making much headway. I started this project at work at the beginning of the year with enthusiasm to learn, but I let it go to waste. It all went downhill after my task lead told me, after I suggested a different way to approach the work we were doing: “When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but it was beaten out of me and I’ll beat it out of you, too.”

Yes, that’s one of the most repugnant things I’ve ever been told. No, I shouldn’t have allowed that to sour the next three months of work. That’s like going for a hike in the mountains, getting bit by a mosquito, then throwing myself off a cliff in retaliation.

I’m trying patience. I have a great deal of patience in some contexts. I could walk or drive or sit all day, focused on anything I like. (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions: “Can you see anything in the dark, with your sunglasses on?” she asked me. “The big show is inside my head,” I said.) Add to that just a drop of someone telling me what to do — and, god forbid, telling me a certain way to do it — and I will lay waste to anything within reach.

I’m trying. You’d need a scanning electron microscope to measure the results, but I’m trying. I borrowed a copy of Pema Chödrön’s audiobook Don’t Bite the Hook from the library. Every day I listen to it for 20 minutes on the way to work, 20 minutes on the way back. I’m on my fourth run through it. It is, in short, about recognizing the onset of the urge to do something rash, acknowledging it, and practicing the art of not indulging it. I’m not there yet but I’m trying.

(Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird: I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.)