Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ethiopia Diary

I tried to keep a day-by-day account of our Ethiopia trip way back in January, in the hopes that I could turn it into an awesome blog post. Because, of course, I excel at writing trip reports. Like the great posts about the Vietnam trip where I got arrested, or our trip to Turkey in 2010, or our trip to Indonesia in 2011. Oh wait--I didn't blog about any of those? Sigh.

In any case, I kept decent notes this trip, hoping to craft an amazing post, complete with all our best photos, one that might make up for all those other failed posts...and then, since that just seemed exhausting, I did nothing instead.

So let me tone down my ambitions, for once: this is not an amazing post. This is just my scattered notes, and some scattered photos. But look, ma: I'm actually posting!


Ethiopia, December/January 2012

Day 1: We arrive at the airport in Boston. We take family photos--the airport is a surprisingly good backdrop for this--and then change into our hiking clothes for the trip. I am too fat for my hiking pants (thank you, Christmas) and must buy Vaseline to stop a developing rash at my waistline. (Yes, I had to grease myself up to get into pants.) Meanwhile, Mike meets an Ethiopian woman at the airport who is surprised to hear of our destination. She then promptly asks him if he knows Jesus. This bodes well.

Day 2: Still in transit. Does air travel always take this long? My Vaseline is taken away at customs in London, except for what I can fit into a plastic baggie. (Note: a plastic baggie of Vaseline is disgusting.) Not surprisingly, everyone on our flight from London to Bahrain is Indian. We have way too long at the airport in Bahrain, and so we spend our time aimlessly wandering in circles because it was too noisy to sleep.  The flight to Addis Ababa was entirely women, all of them were enthusiastically talking at the top of their lungs...at 3am. Pleasant!

Day 3: We have a flight on a prop plane to Gonder, which Mike spends enthusiastically taking pictures out the window. We meet some South Africans at airport who had come for a supposed "luxury" lodge in the mountains. It must not have been as luxurious as they thought, since we later saw their note in the national park's guest book: "visiting but never ever coming back again." Too cheap to share their "luxury" transport, we take a bus to the national park's departure town, which is 4 1/2 hours on a dusty road, after 33 hours on planes. We are crammed in me at the back, practically on our neighbors' laps, with everyone on the bus surreptitiously turning to stare. I can't stop humming that Shakira song for the last World Cup: waka waka hey hey, this is Africa! We make arrangements for backpacking at the park office, where the guy has a very proper British accent. Much to our disappointment, the national park officials insist that we have to take a tent.

Day 4: The first day of our trek. We leave from Debark and arrive at camp to Sankaber what feels like a lifetime later: we covered 14 1/2 miles all told, at 10,000 feet, and me with food poisoning, puking the entire way. (Here's some travel advice: don't eat at a place called the Semen Park Restaurant.) We are accompanied by a scout, complete with an antique rifle, who speaks absolutely no English. (He knows "yello," which I think he thinks is "hello.") From him I learn the Amharic names for animals, but not much more than that. We're passing through foothills mostly populated by goat- and cowherds, plus lots of baboons. Mike stalks them; I lie down. In Sankaber I collapse before the tent is even set up and sleep fitfully for the next 14 hours.

Day 5: Sankaber to Geech. We pass several villages and are always, always invited in for a coffee ceremony. Our climb to a nearby peak is amazing--even Scout sits down to appreciate the views. (Scout is an iron man, we quickly learn. I'm not sure what he was eating on the trip--no, seriously, I'm not sure if he even ate at all--but someone should seriously market it.) The landscape changes to the Afro-Alpine zone, which, as far as I can tell, just means lots of lobelia. An old woman follows us some of the way, probably impatient with our slow, fat Western pace. (Scout is equally impatient and terrible at hiding it. All day long, he says "yello! Yello!" I think in this context it means "hurry up, fatty!") We camp that night at 13,000 feet. A British girl in a nearby tent gets altitude sickness and is heard vomiting loudly all night. I am sympathetic.

Day 6: Geech to Chenek, December 31. I'm having a sluggish morning, so I begin counting my steps: 2.186 is the highest number I reach before we pause for some views. The British girl is also afraid of heights; why is she here again? We try to buy a sheep for dinner in camp but it doesn't work out, so we're stuck, again, eating cold rehydrated backpacking food. I don't recommend it. Lots of climbing; the gelada baboons here are skittish, probably because there are far fewer people around. Mike stalks them anyway, while I laugh in delight every time they move because they are just. so. shaggy. At camp that night, a large European tour group (Czech, maybe?) stays up late drinking and singing for New Year's. We still fall asleep almost immediately after dark.

Day 7: Bwahit (from Chenek): We wake up in the morning to see walia ibex, one of the park's most endangered species, frolicking just outside our camp. We stay at last night's campsite at 13,000 feet and aim to summit a 14,500 foot peak as a day hike. I'm too exhausted/altitude weak to go far, so I climb back down, find the world's most scenic bench, and spend the day reading. Heaven! Mike races Scout to the peak and loses, but gets his revenge by practically sprinting down. (He hears a lot of the other Amharic word we learned: K'uss! Or, slowly!) Since the day hike takes less than a day, we spend the afternoon reading, playing cards, and chatting with the other tourists at the campsite. We are the only people who came to Ethiopia specifically for these mountains. Even I have to admit they're gorgeous and we got our money's worth.

Day 8: Chenek to Sankaber. I suddenly feel marvelously strong; hiking along, I think I was born to do this! This is our last day, though, so it's mostly hiking out on a road, trailing Mule Man, who is leading the mule carrying our big backpacks. We pass lots of villages, and lots of small children tending goat/sheep, all of whom have enormous balls. (The goats, not the children.) We pass priest; everyone else genuflects and kisses his cross. When we reach an intermediate campsite, we decide we don't want to walk all the way out, so instead we wait by road and waylay some grumpy Germans, persuading them to give us a ride out. We stay in the town of Debark again that night, where we get to take showers and eat real food. (We tried the Semen Park Hotel again, because we are crazy.) We explore the evening market, where some local children follow us around. When we hold their hands and swing them, they are sold on us forever.

Day 9: We take an early morning (5:30) bus to Gonder. I fall asleep on the bus (I really can sleep anywhere). We stay at the Circle Hotel, which is very circular, and discover a cafe with fatira to die for; as a result, we spend the rest of the day overfull and lethargic. We eat there for dinner, too, but it's less delicious. (Tuna fish on spaghetti?!?) Gonder is full of castles, which were super cool but also super hot. Gonder also has one of my favorite sites, the Debre Birhan Selassie church, whose roof is painted with hundreds of angel faces; it's adorable, trust me. We spent the afternoon walking the city streets, where Mike noticed a teenager carrying a physics textbook and offered to help him with his homework. The double take was tremendous.


Day 10: Bahir Dar. We take another early morning (5:30) bus to Bahir Dar. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?) This city was full of touts; even a guy from the restaurant we ate at offered us a "great deal" on a boat; is everyone in this town in the tourist business? (Answer: yes.) We walked out to Lake Tana, the main attraction, and caught a papyrus reed boat across the river. (Most tourists take a motorboat around the lake to visit the monasteries, but given that women aren't allowed in most of them I wasn't about to overspend on just a motorboat ride.) After seeing a small church on the lake, we hired a tuktuk driver to take us to the Blue Nile falls. The falls aren't very impressive now thanks to a dam, but it was still hilarious/insane to spend two hours in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk on a dirt road. We were entertainment for every single villager along the way.

Day 11-12: Lalibella. The more I enjoyed a place, the worse my notes are. Lalibella, Ethiopia's main pilgrimage site, was spectacular, full of rock-hewn medieval churches. Apparently I was not dressed appropriately for a pilgrimage, as some young girls chastised me: "skirts are for females." (Their word, not mine.) It being Ethiopian Christmas, Lalibella was also incredibly overcrowded. There was no room at any of the inns--fitting for a Christmas visit--and so we stayed at the family home of a young man we met on the bus. (Yes, this is sketchy.) The room was above the stable--also fitting for a Christmas visit--and Mike got fleas.

Day 13-14: Axum. We loved Axum, but that might have just been because we found a pleasant hotel. Again, my notes are spotty since we actually kept busy, touring obelisks, museums, ancient ruins, and staring at the church that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. It was fun for me to discover that I could immediately hear the difference between Amharic and Tigrinya; I am still a linguist at heart. Axum also featured some great old military propaganda, apparently left over from the days when the military wore short shorts.

Day 15: On this day, Mike got to climb a goatskin rope up a cliff to a 6th-century monastery. I got to sit at the bottom and watch him because women are not allowed. And no, I'm not bitter about it at all.

Day 16: Addis Ababa. We flew to Addis Ababa and were hoping to catch a bus to Harrar immediately but the buses were all full, so we had to stay the night. Meanwhile we were relatively near the museum with Lucy's bones, so we walked there with our backpacks still on, assuming the museum would have a bag check area. It doesn't.

Day 17: We take a bus to Harrar. We have lots of time to observe the scenery: lots of cows, goats, and donkeys, and, as we get further east, camels. The oil here comes from Libya, as all the stations proudly announce. China is building roads everywhere. The language here, Orominya, is also noticeably different from Amharic, though for a while I wondered if it was just English doubled, thanks to all the signs saying "hootteella." 

Day 18-20: Harrar. This is too long to stay in Harrar but too short to go anywhere else. We try to negotiate a trip to an elephant park, but fail, repeatedly; the guide we arrange never shows up, and meanwhile everyone tells us conflicting stories about how great the park is (or isn't). We hang around Harrar instead, eating at our favorite restaurant multiple times per day. (Ethiopian food is delicious, but by now I'm getting sick of injera, which is in absolutely everything. One popular dish is torn-up pieces of injera in sauce...that you then eat with a side of injera.) We take a bus out to a nearby town to visit its camel market. We also go hiking in some rock formations near the town; while Mike scales a steep slope, I wait at the bottom, out of sight, and am possibly threatened at knifepoint. (It wasn't really clear what the guy was trying to communicate by pulling out his knife and drawing it across his throat, but I didn't like it.)  This is the closest I've ever been to Somalia (about 100 miles) and, after my friend with the knife, the closest I ever want to be to Somalia. We tour Harar's old city--it's legitimately cool--and, get this, we feed hyenas

Day 21-24: We take a bus back to Addis Ababa to catch our flight. We sleep terribly the night before thanks to hyenas rooting through the trash pile next to our hotel and barking all night long. On our way back we pass two different crashes of long-distance buses just like ours. At this point we have run out of books and have only one Kindle between the two of us, so we trade off between reading and playing cards. I keep track of how often I win or lose solitaire; mostly I lose. After getting off the bus in Addis we walk to the airport; it's fully 5 miles away but we have time to kill. When we arrive at the airport we find out that our Saturday night flight was cancelled and there isn't another one until Monday morning. We kick ourselves for not going somewhere other than Harrar, now that we have an extra day on our trip. Mostly, we want to kick the airline for canceling our flight and not telling us until the day before. (When we get home, I begin a campaign of furious--and constant--emails to the airline and eventually get us a $250 apology.) We hang out in Addis Ababa for another day, mostly walking around doing nothing, and have an uneventful trip back, arriving home two days later than planned. ("I'm trapped in Addis Ababa" turns out to be a very good excuse to miss some extra work.)

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part Whichever-Part-Is-Last

October: Aikido

At the beginning of the year I made a list of the skills I might like to learn, the further out of my comfort zone, the better. (Scuba diving? Shooting a gun!??!)  One of the items I put on the list was "martial arts"--yes, that's right, the generic kind--because I've never tried anything like that before, and doesn't that seem like I'm missing out?

(Martial arts must be the one-and-only childhood activity I never tried: at various points before my parents finally gave up and just let me be a shut-in, I did T-ball, swimming, gymnastics, ballet, horseback riding, ice skating, piano lessons and drama. I excelled at nothing, dreaded them all, and--yes, I'm an ungrateful brat--quit as soon as I could.)

In any case, I happened to pass an Aikido Institute a few blocks from my apartment in mid-September, and when I looked into their schedule, by pure serendipity, I found that they were offering a $50 adults-only introductory month of twice-a-week classes. Bingo! Adults-only was ideal (I didn't want to be a Kramer) and Aikido was as good as anything else. (Who doesn't want to be Steven Seagal?)

I had a blast in my four weeks of classes, as much as that surprised me. I got the classic white uniform, much too large for me, and learned very quickly to kneel and say "ohayo gozaimasu." I even learned a few basic chops and throws, though, surprising no one, I vastly preferred to get thrown than to throw others: when you're the thrower, you have to have timing, strength, and confidence. When you're the throwee, you just have to go limp.

There are no pictures of me in my uniform. It was embarrassing.

November: Drawing

I'm not particularly good at drawing…or rather, not particularly good at drawing anything but horses. Thank you, nerdy childhood.

Speaking of my childhood--gosh, I love smooth transitions--I remember my parents taking a drawing class together where they used a book called "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain" that claims that anyone can learn to draw. Anyone? Yes, anyone, and so I decided, in November, to put this to the test.

(My parents really enjoyed this drawing class, they say, but it didn't last long, because my dad only wanted to draw naked women.)

So for November I bought the book and started working my way through its exercises. I've only gotten halfway (one of these days I'll finish!) but I believe the book, I really do: in only a few weeks, I learned to draw a halfway-decent depiction of one of the chairs in our living room. Dream big, self.

December: Arranging music

Frankly, by this point in the year, I was exhausted. Also, work was crazy--CRAZY--and we were leaving on a nearly four-week trip in the third week of December, so I didn't have much time for anything other than working and packing. However, true to my obsessive nature, I had to pick something, and I had been wanting some new music to play on my harp for a while, so voila: arranging music.

This, too, is something I've dabbled in before, though it was as long ago as high school, when I was taking harp lessons and music theory classes, both of which were natural breeding grounds for experimenting. (As an aside, I graduated from high school ten years ago. TEN YEARS! I can't believe it.) It seems fitting to start and end the year with something I had tried before, though, as nice bookends to a satisfying and interesting year.

I still don't have a piece fully arranged for the harp, of course, and as much as I tell myself that I'll finish it someday, I probably won't. I did work on something for a while, though, starting in December, so it totally counts. For the curious, it was a transposition and adjustment of the piano + viola duet medley of "If You Could Hie To Kolob" and "Adam-ondi-Ahman" found here. If I ever finish it, it will be lovely.


So that's the Year of Skills. A little bit crazy, a little bit interesting. I'm glad I did it, no question, but for 2012 I have made no such ambitious plans; I'm a little burned on huge resolutions, to be honest. I still read The New Yorker every month, a la 2010, and I've rotated quilting and drawing into my roster of relaxation activities, and I'm confident I can scuba dive again the next time I need to, but this year I've got nothing to prove and nothing to strive for; my written resolutions at the beginning of the year were things like "blog more" and "go to the dentist."  Resolution 1? Check. Resolution 2? Time to find a dentist.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 3

July: Bike Repair

July was positively lame compared to June. I know, I know, I'm sorry, but I can't keep up that level of glamor forever.

Another thing I can't keep forever--check out that smooth transition--is my bicycle. While we were in Ethiopia over Christmas, our next-door neighbor who never locks the doors (we live in Oakland: who doesn't lock the doors?!?) failed, yet again, to lock the door, and our bicycles, which we kept in a hallway closet, were stolen. Let's take this moment to mourn my bicycle, which I loved passionately.

Isn't it beautiful? Also, heavy.

In any case, in July I saw an advertisement for free bike repair classes offered at a chain of bike shops around here, and I thought that was the perfect skill for the month, especially as I was taking my bike into the city (and by the store) anyway to get to the pier for a sailing offsite for work. (OK, I can keep up that level of glamor forever, or at least for a long time.)

I expected the bike repair classes to be, you know, classes, but instead I was the only one who showed up, and I got a free hour of individual bike repair instruction from an expert. Not a bad deal, I say, even though the main thing I learned is that I'm not strong enough to pull off or put on a bicycle tire. Clearly if I plan on ever getting a flat, I should do some finger workouts first.

August: Programming

The company where I work is incredibly engineering-oriented; the company exists for them and by them and the rest of us are just auxiliaries. I'm not complaining, mind you, but it does mean that I'm intrigued by their skills. As I see it, I file a request for something to happen to the site or to one of our tools, and bam! some time later (occasionally some long time later) it's fixed. It's like magic! (Slow, slow magic.) I wanted in on that magic myself; not that I'd ever get good enough to be able to fix the site myself, but at least with some grounding in programming I might not be so incredibly bowled over by what our engineers can do.

There's not much more interesting to say about this one, and certainly no pictures. I started out teaching myself PHP with some tutorials online and books from the library, but I then expanded my repertoire to JavaScript because that's what Codecademy was teaching. It's fun, but I'm nowhere near confident enough to actually build anything myself. This, after quilting, is the skill that I continue to work on the most, mostly because, with the enthusiastic approval of my manager, I now get to use work time to practice. (Should I mention, yet again, how much I love my job?)

September: Canning

Mike's parents are impressively self-reliant people: they grow the majority of produce they eat, they built their own house, they even barter with friends who have sheep and bees. (Mike hates it when I say that because it makes them sound like they're hunter-gatherers in some pre-currency economy. So let me clarify: they trade cash for fresh honey. But from a friend! Someone they know!) Needless to say, I, the citified useless intellectual child of citified useless intellectual parents, think this is incredible.

With touching faith and optimism, Mike's mother thinks I could someday be the kind of homemaker she is, and, knowing how much I love her homemade jams, last Christmas she gave me a canning kit: mason jars, tongs, etc etc. I thought I would never use the kit--I like to eat other people's homemade jams, see; all of the joy but none of the work--but hey! It was the Year of Skills and I needed something to do in September, so I canned some heirloom tomatoes.

The canning process itself was fairly easy--chop up some tomatoes, put them in jars, boil away!--but because of that, I'm suspicious: what if I did it wrong? How am I supposed to know? I'd really rather not get botulism.

And thus, we have three small jars of tomatoes sitting in our kitchen still, waiting for the day that I give up entirely and throw them away. It was fun while it lasted.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 2

April: Driving a Stick Shift

I didn't have a car when we got married, but Mike did, and it was a stick shift. It's really embarrassing that it took me a year and a half of marriage to get around to learning how to drive our car, but Mike never seemed to mind giving me rides, and I didn't mind biking or taking BART when he couldn't. In any case, the Year of Skills was the push I needed to learn, and I spent several Saturdays in April out at the abandoned naval base in Alameda--flat, empty, and perfect for shifting gears--or at the cemetery in Piedmont--perfect for practicing hills--and now I can now confidently drive our car around town, and once I even drove it on the highway! When I say that with such pride I suddenly feel sixteen again, slowly turning circles in a parking lot with an anxious parent slamming on the air brakes.

(This was also a small cheat, since a friend in college had tried to teach me to drive a stick shift before. He gave me several great lessons but I never got as high as third gear and I never actually drove his car on the road, just in a parking lot. By April 2011, I had been out of college for five years (!) and had essentially forgotten all of his lessons.)

No picture here, either. It's a 1998 blue Honda Civic. Try to imagine it.

May: Making Cheese

I didn't plan a skill for May until the third week, and I had no ideas for one until I posted about my goal on Facebook and solicited suggestions from friends. Nearly 100 comments later, a friend said that she and her husband had a leftover cheese-making kit they were trying to get rid of, and, in case I wasn't intrigued already,  their homemade ricotta was delicious. Sold! So in May I tried to make cheese. Unlike the other skills so far, I tried to teach myself this one using the internet (oh, thank you internet!) and the instructions in the kit. Mike was in New York for most of May and June so I had plenty of time alone in our apartment to waste milk. I'm sure there are more efficient and fun ways to waste milk, but still, this wasn't so bad, even if it never resulted in proper cheese. (My first attempt ended in rubbery and unpalatable lumps and my last attempt ended in delicious curds that never really turned into a solid. I smeared some on a loaf of bread (homemade, of course--that's one skill I actually do have) and called it good.

June: Scuba Diving

Despite having lived in the tropics for years and despite being a passionate and dedicated snorkeler, I never learned to scuba dive. My youngest brother has heart trouble and my father has lung trouble, so obviously scuba diving was right out for our family. Also, I'm a total wuss and scuba diving seemed scary. Mike, however, loves scuba diving, and so with a trip to Indonesia planned for our summer, he insisted that I learn. I spent late May and early June reading all the books to prepare for the written certification test, and then at the end of June I did the initial pool work with a friend of Mike's in Davis, who is a certified instructor with a backyard pool.

(Side note: his pool was only 4 feet deep. This was a good way to keep me from being terrified of the whole endeavor. This also meant that we had to use his neighbor's pool for the final portion of the training, and so we dutifully trooped down the street--wearing wetsuits, flippers, and air tanks--in search of a deeper backyard pool. It was like I was living in a Wes Anderson movie.)

I just needed two more days of certification once we got to Indonesia, and, of course, Indonesia having no real rules, we persuaded the instructor to shorten that to one day. I'm now a card-carrying scuba diver, and getting over my fears paid off: we dove around and through a sunken World War II ship, and we saw sharks. Sharks! I can die happy now.
Two very white people about to enjoy a wreck dive with sharks.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 1

January: Yoga

I started out with a small cheat, since I had tried yoga before. When I was in grad school, I very occasionally did Bikram Yoga with a friend, but stopped going when my friend's bring-a-guest-free coupons ran out. When a Groupon deal for a yoga place near my apartment came up, I snapped it up.  I went a few times, sweat copiously, got ever-so-slightly more flexible, and stopped going when my Groupon visits ran out. I sense a theme.

(As an aside, I find the idea of "hot yoga" as a specialized brand hilarious: in India, they just call that yoga.)

I have no pictures here. You wouldn't want to see them even if I did.

February: Quilting

I've never been a big crafter, or at least not in the cutesy-things-on-Pinterest or craft-activities-at-church senses, but when I was in middle school I spent many happy hours in my room knitting, cross-stitching, and needlepointing, usually while listening to oldies radio, and one summer when I was in high school I spent many happy hours in my room making colorful collages out of pictures I cut from magazines. (Yes, I was a loser, but such a happy one.) In February I wanted a new skill that could take me back to that childhood tranquility, and when my aunt presented us with a beautiful quilt she had made for her wedding the answer was obvious. My aunt very graciously agreed to teach me the basics, and I launched into working on a baby quilt for my cousin, who, luckily, was not even pregnant at the time. (I don't need extra deadlines in my life.)

I think this was my favorite skill for the year, and one of only a few that I've kept doing into 2012.  I was right that quilting brings the meditative, time-slows-down sense I craved, and I love thinking about matching and contrasting fabrics; it's also a good outlet for the batiks I've been collecting since I lived in Indonesia. Any day I can find a few minutes to cut or sew or even just browse quilting blogs is a good one. I've got three or four quilts in progress at the moment, and now I just need to learn to actually finish my quilts, as I'm still working on the baby quilt I started last February. (This taught me another important lesson: don't hand-quilt. If you're a sub-par seamstress like me, it takes forever.)

Sometimes I take over our entire living room with a quilt.

March: Shooting a Gun

Yoga is so Bay Area, and quilting is so feminine, that I decided March was time for something completely different, and luckily, the universe cooperated. The team I had worked for half-time was invited to spend an afternoon at a private shooting range used by...a government agency, let's say, with a shooting instructor there to help us explore the guns. (I forget what I'm allowed to say to say here so I'll just be vague. Sorry)

I am not that badass. I am mostly just terrified.

I had shot a gun once or twice before--usually at shooting ranges in Idaho with my grandpa, an avid hunter--but this still counted as new, because I had never gotten any actual gun training, not to mention from a government instructor, and I had never shot an original 1920s Tommy gun. (They are surprisingly heavy. I now know why 20s criminals shot from the hip.)

This is not a Tommy gun. I know that.

My job situation ended up changing in early March (adding another newish skill, resume crafting and interviewing), but since I stupidly never abandon a goal (see that bit about still reading every article in every issue of The New Yorker), I stuck with the Year of Skills. To be continued!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Year of Skills: Intro

In 2010, my goal for the year was to read every article in every issue of that year's The New Yorker, and so for 2011 it was understandable that I'd be interested in doing slightly less reading. (I still read every article in every issue of The New Yorker, though; what can I say? I'm an obsessive personality.) Looking back at 2010, the beginning of the year was filled with instability, since in the course of about six months I got married, applied to law school, quit grad school, and got a full-time job. I think I was seeking something constant and familiar, and if you were raised in my house there is nothing more constant or familiar than The New Yorker.

Looking back at 2011 now, I can see that I was facing exactly the opposite situation: my job, which I still loved, was promising to be become a little more stable and routine, as I had just finished working half-time for another team and was returning back to my original role after three months of being totally overwhelmed and learning challenging new things every day. I had just been asked to visit Austin to train a team there on doing my work, since after only a year, I was the second most senior member of the team (!). I was feeling like an expert, like I knew it all…and I hate that feeling. I need constant change and learning to be happy, and it was looking like my job was just going to let me coast.

And so I set a different sort of goal for 2011: learn a new skill every month. The basic parameters were pretty loose: it had to be a doing skill, not a knowing skill; I had to start the skill during the month but didn't have to master it (either during the month or ever); and the definition of "new" was either something I had never tried or simply something I had tried but never succeeded at. I didn't choose all my skills beforehand, though I made a list of things I was interested in, and so many of the year's skills represented what was going on in my life at the time. If I were a better or more dedicated writer, I'd turn this experience into one of those A.J. Jacobs-style books, but alas, "writing a book" was not one of the year's skills, and instead, I'm going to turn it into a series of blog entries. Stay tuned for (dum dum dummmmmm) The Year of Skills.

Friday, April 06, 2012

No Fear of Flying

Dallas has a lot of swimming pools. I mean, it makes sense, but still--as you fly over almost every single house has a bright blue dot in the backyard. This is what I've observed as I've flown through  the Dallas-Forth Worth airport three times in the last three months. Also, the airport is enormous.

That's all I know about the city of Dallas, since my layovers have never been more than an hour. The first time, in January, we were flying home from Ethiopia on a marathon of flight legs--Addis Ababa to Bahrain, Bahrain to London, London to Dallas, Dallas to San Francisco. Add to that the fact that our layover in Bahrain was nineteen hours long, and that we had walked two miles to the airport in Addis two day earlier only to find out that our flight had been cancelled, and you can imagine how exhausted we were.

(The trip to Ethiopia was really good aside from the canceled flight at the end. More on that later, I hope.)

Four days after I got home from Ethiopia, I flew to Austin for work--passing through Dallas, of course--and I just flew home from Austin yet again today. I love traveling for work: I'm a nerd, I know, but the prospect of working 12 hours a day and then heading to a fancy hotel to exercise at a gym and watch TV until way too late at night is intensely exciting.

I also love flying. Like, really really love it. Long flights get exhausting, of course, but most flights are like a little bubble of time that I'm totally free from distractions and my to-do list. I go into a strange fugue state of idle pleasures, because nothing you do on an airplane counts: I can read uninterrupted, I can listen to music and actually focus on it, I can stare out the window at swimming pools, I can even do the crossword and sudoku puzzles in the in-flight magazine, and I don't have to feel guilty about any of it! Even layovers don't bother me; airports are such interesting microcosms of the real world, like mini cities where the residents are from anywhere and everywhere (especially India) and the restaurants are all bland and overpriced but the chocolate is fabulous.

(What, that's not a selling point for a city?)

Really, though, my love of flying goes deeper than just the time wasting: air travel makes me proud to be human. Stop and think sometime about the coordination and logistical planning that goes into running an airport, but not for too long or you'll get a headache. It's like a complex hive of activity, except there's far more to do than just find flowers and make honey, and I love watching the hustle and bustle of thousands of people heading someplace different. Every time I pass through an airport, I make sure to stop in front of a departure board and imagine the possibilities, and I feel like an astronaut looking up at the night stars.)

And, of course, I love the feeling of takeoff and landing; as far as I'm concerned, it's magic, and I feel proud of my species for figuring it out. I always try to get a window seat when I travel so I can look out the window as the plane goes faster and faster, speeding by the airport and the control tower and the empty land around, and then, just when I think the plane can't possibly get any faster, whoosh! We're in the air! And I pause for a second thinking about how much the airplane weighs and why it shouldn't be able to fly and then I think, "Ha! I'd like to see a chimpanzee do that."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reading Roundup 2011

I read far, far fewer books this year than last year.  First of all, my commute changed (to become much shorter; hooray!), but second of all, my New Year's resolution for the year meant far less reading time than usual. (More on that later.)

So it's hard to write a "best books" post when I have only 88 books to choose from. I should change the rules to include New Yorker articles--I'm obsessive and read every article of every issue again this year--but that would require me to have a list somewhere of New Yorker articles. (I really liked the one about George RR Martin and how he took a really long time to finish the 5th book of his fantasy series. That was interesting. Oh, and the one about the virus hunter was really cool.)

Nonetheless, I spent part of a boring work meeting today looking at my book list and choosing my favorites for the year, so here we are. Another strange thing about this retrospective is how little fiction qualifies for my "best of" list--I did read and enjoy some novels this year, I swear, but apparently I spent more time on non-fiction. This must be the first time ever, because I've generally been a die-hard fiction fan. I must be growing up.

Fiction Top...Few
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Yeah, that's it. I read lots of other stuff I enjoyed, but it was mainly returning to my roots by reading authors I've long loved--Connie Willis, Sharon Kay Penman, A.S. Byatt--but I can't really call those books great fiction in the same sense as the above. I also listened to a number of classics--Portrait of a Lady, Ivanhoe, Sister Carrie--and enjoyed them far more than I thought I would.

Non-Fiction Top 10
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner
The Emperor of Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden
A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott
A Midwife’s Tale, by  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
At Home, by Bill Bryson
Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

This is where it got at least a little competitive. Honorable mentions to The Price of Motherhood, by Ann Crittenden, Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein--all three were flawed but thought-provoking.

I should do a companion list for the 10 worst books I read each year. I've got a small side gig as a book reviewer that would provide endless fodder.