Monday, February 22, 2010

333, the mark of the pest

Bicycling season for me starts with a vengeance this coming weekend. In the early spring of Utah’s low desert my first organized century of the season takes place. Like all season starters I am markedly undertrained for this effort.

To call this event a race would be incorrect. Everyone gets a number, but there are no timers, or judges, or even recognition for who comes in first. However, one should recognize the fact that anytime you place numbers on everyone’s back all the middle aged men are racing.

I firmly deny any intentions to race. I have been told that racing in charity and fun events is immature and frowned upon by most rational people. I, always wishing to appear as rational as possible, would never race during a recreational event. If somebody should be seen with an extra burst of energy in the last few miles, or even sprinting to the finish line, it most assuredly would not be me.

The last time I rode this event I was given the number 333. That is half the mark of the beast.
333 – The mark of the pest

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love Stinks

Today is Valentine's day.

Happy VD-ay!

This post is about love.

It is the third in what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts devoted to Love.
The first post was “Love Poetry
The Second post was “Loving Atheists

This post is about a traumatic and stinky love topic. This post is about VDay.

Yesterday I went into a Bath Shoppe with my daughters. The place smelled like an organic chemistry lab on a good day. There was an incredible amount of pink in the shoppe. Signs declared that this potion was “sexy”, this other one was “romantic”. A pyramid of romantically scented hand sanitizers caught my eye.

An attractive young saleswoman offered me a valentine. I opened it only to find a coupon for some percent off of a purchase and the (in big curly script) deceleration that I had just gotten “lucky”. I found it odd being informed that I had just “gotten lucky” by an attractive young woman since I felt so exceedingly unstimulated. Perhaps I am just getting old.

Valentine's day ignites an explosion of pink with red undertones. There are associated scents and tastes. There is also a profusion of fluffy and soft things. It is as if there is a subset of the spectrum of perception that must be assaulted to best target at a particular response. That response has something to do with love.

I have repeatedly identified learning processes which require practice and repetition.  Valentine's day type love is often described in acute catastrophic terms rather than chronic.  One is supposed to be able to "fall" in love.  Valentines day would be different if love were described as a creeping affliction.

It would be strange to see a valentine that said something like: "I'm about 20% in love with you right now.  It is particularly apparent between my toes, and it is almost 100% in my left ear.".

If the valentine's day love were a chronic and progressive condition we might expect the decorations to tend to the higher frequency portion of the visible spectrum.  Instead of infra-red decorating there would be more yellows and greens.  Instead of so much fluffy there would be more warm and squishy.  Perhaps wet and sticky also...

Love ingrains sensory stimuli into the long-term memory.  One significant reason why scents are so big on VDay is that olfactory stimuli are processed in the limbic system of the brain.  Thus the processing of these stimuli is performed in the neural neighborhood where emotions and long-term memory are processed.  Scent stimuli responses are already in the right place for incorporation into the long term memory.  Since emotions are processed in the limbic system the long term memories are just as emotional as they are smelly. 

The limbic system is also called the paleomammalian brain.  This is an old (evolutionarily speaking) portion of the brain that interacts less efficiently (though much better than the reptilian cerebellum) with the reasoning lobes that make up so much of the brain's mass.  Direct responses by this portion of the brain are more reactionary than measured.  For this reason love can sometimes feel traumatic.

In fact the limbic system also regulates response to more classically defined traumatic stimuli.  In PTSD (it is mostly theorized) the limbic system's response to trauma is a release of hormones that causes widespread permanent "wiring" changes in the brain.  The universally anecdotal evidence is that love can also trigger the same traumatic stimulus response hormones and cause permanent "wiring" changes in the brain.  Some of these changes are the development of long-term memories.  Others will modulate behavior, perception, and even future limbic-mediated traumatic stimulus responses. 

There is, with VDay type love, a potential way to quickly and permanently affect the brain.  Being able to apply this tool might be exciting and very worthwhile.

So at least VDay-type love can be described as traumatic and smelly (in a good way).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

DV footrace pt III

During the post-race nap several things happened:
  1) The world became colder and grayer.
  2) Someone snuck into my tent and surgically replaced my legs with wooden replicas.
  3) All of the other campers on my side of the tent loop had packed up and left.
  4) I became incredibly hungry
  5) My MP3 player lost all charge.
There was also a lot more mud. It was impossible to avoid the mud, and it stuck to everything it touched.

Behind the campsite there was a large open area. By large I mean a hundred or so square miles. The visible portion was an irregular beige surface devoid of vegetation. The low irregularities were filling with water. The low spots were puddles, but they threatened to fuse together and form a shallow inland sea.

The sky had fallen partway. There was an impenetrable mass of white suspended about 250 feet off the desert floor. Beneath the ceiling it was clear enough to see 50 miles.

I stood in a band of clarity between the encroaching dissolution of reality. The ground was melting into liquid; the sky was solidifying into white goo. The sun was also setting. Actually I only imagined it was setting as I could not tell where it was. For all I knew someone had found the cosmic dimmer switch and was slowly turning out the lights.

I hopped in the car and drove to Badwater. I had never seen Badwater in the rain. Now I have. It looked like rain falling on a puddle.

There was something about the sound of the raindrops plopping into the hypersaline pool that was hypnotic. I could theorize that the unique auditory effect was due to the difference in density of the water and the drops. Perhaps it was the density of the 284 foot below sealevel air that caused the phenomenon. Most likely it was the combined effects of my being tired, well fed (I had been eating since I woke up), wet, alone, and in a place of rapidly dissolving immeasurable vastness. I was soaked when I noticed the ranger and his small knot of interpretive program audience.

Something terrific has happened to rangers of late. They all appear to be reasonably talented showpeople. Everything is a performance, and the performances are given with such enthusiasm that I swear the NPS has stopped random drug testing. In asking about the weather I was treated to dramatic readings of computer printouts. These new rangers are seriously good at outreach, and not just one ranger, but almost every ranger I spoke with.

There appears to be a steady decline in the lifeforce of the park-going population. I swear the ratio of RV slots to tent slots has doubled. Much of the campground was an RV parking lot. Little paved pullouts all in a row. Each RV seemed to have its own generator and satellite TV. The shapes of the occupants were a likely as not to be sexually amorphic due to obesity.

I would later momentarily regret having not pitched my tent on a paved RV berth.

I decided against walking out onto the salt flats with the ranger’s group. I’m sure that it would have been entertaining, perhaps he would have done an interpretive dance to demonstrate mineral cycling?

For me the salt path from Badwater was just too white. It looked like a bit of the sky had already fallen there. A braver man might have attempted to stop the ranger’s tour:


When I returned to furnace creek I had a few hours in the dark to walk around before I wanted to sleep. It drizzled and drizzled. I was soaked.

When I returned to the campsite the mud was bad. Several of the campsites were completely flooded. There was a huddle of road cyclists who took up connected campsites on the far end of the tent loop. They had a lake between their tents and their cars.

It rained through the night. The puddle that formed inside my tent was warm. The hard ground underneath the tent became soft and comfortable. I was sleeping on a highly viscous leaky waterbed. I slept very well.

The morning’s world was six inches deep in creamy peanut butter. Every step threatened to steal a shoe. I picked up the tent whole and moved it to the parking lot to disassemble it. I rinsed the mud from the groundtarp and my shoes in the asphalt parking lot’s puddles. I felt like I was retreating from an unspeakable defeat. I left the campground as soon as I could and drove halfway to daylight pass before stopping.

It was dawn. Firstlight had yielded to the disk of the sun peaking over the Funeral Mountains. The white goo had gone and wisps of fog retreated before the intense light. Everything was shiny.

I was changing out of my wet clothing into dry duds for the long drive home. I stood for a second in my birthday suit and shoes to look out over the valley. It did not look wet; it looked like it had been pimped with chrome bling. I do not think it would have looked the same had I been fully clothed.

I personally cannot stand for long in the middle of a two-lane road without being clothed. The moment passed. As I rearranged the car for the trip home (getting fresh caffeinated beverages and snacks handy) I thought about how often I let my attitudes interfere with more complete enjoyment of the opportunities that present themselves in my life.

I had just escaped from the mud hell that was my campsite. Why did I not pause to enjoy it? That ground is only mud like that once a year at best. I could have stripped down to my skivvies and jumped in. Instead of dreading the stickyness I could have used that property to cover myself head-to-foot in the mud. Instead of plodding around the deeper puddles hoping not to lose a shoe I could have slithered snakelike and shoeless through the middle of them. Instead of defeated and low I could have been exhausted.

I do not think that it requires a belief in some kind of invisible friend to alter one’s attitude. I doubt many of the god-fearing RV inhabitants would be wallowing in that exquisite mud. I am interested in how I can see opportunity in the world and respond to it with a more inviting attitude.

I think that if I had a travel partner with me, who had offered to clean the mud off of me enough for the trip home, that I would have returned right then to the mud and wallowed in it. Part of the ability to change one’s attitude must depend on preparation.

I would say that the drive home was uneventful, but I would only do that because this post is too long already. Since my MP3 player was dead I sang to myself. I had been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album before the MP3 died and the songs were fresh in my head, so I sang them:

       They saaat togeether in the paaark
       As the evening sky greww daaaark
       She looked at heeeem and heee felllt a spaaark
       Teeengle to his bone
       ‘Twas then he fellt alooone
       And weeshed that heee’d gone straaaaight

I howled like a tone deaf coyote whenever I thought it appropriate.

There was snow on the roads.

In Beatty there was a man in an electric wheelchair tooling along in the center of the right-hand lane. He had two small American flags taped to the back of his seat. The flags fluttered and gave him the illusion of a speed greater than that he could have achieved with the chair alone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

DV footrace pt II

Friday afternoon, after the bikeride, I saw a couple of park employees putting up yellow caution tape around several campsites. I asked them what was up.

“The rain will make these sites unsafe” they said.

“How about my site?” I asked, gesturing to the site next-door where my tent was set up.

“That site is already occupied.” They replied, as if that rendered it safer.

I was not very comforted knowing that what kept my site from being condemned was simply that I had reserved it over the internet.

The pre-race night it rained a light soaking rain. By the morning the moisture had soaked mostly in. There were a few puddles. One could avoid most of the mud.

I was really too nervous to care about a little mud. I woke an hour earlier than I had planned and dawdled as slowly as I could. There was espresso to be made, two pots. Breakfast required elaborate orange pealing rituals.

Finally I began going over my pre-race checklist.

  Hat? Check.
  Funny spandex shirt? Check.
  Spandex shorts? Commando? Check. Check.
  Funny shoes with bright purple socks? Check.
  Greased armpits and feet? Check.
  Vaseline on my thighs? Check.
  Bandaged nipples? Check.

I could have been getting ready for a very interesting party.

By the time I left the campsite, I knew that I would be wearing the VFF for the run. They are quite comfortable. With the Injinji socks they are toasty and comforting. The fact that the Injinjis were lilac colored was psychologically comforting as well.

The VFF have worked well on all the trail runs I had done up to that point. The only downside to using them at all occured only on paved surfaces. On the hard roads I would occasionally encounter a piece of quail-egg-sized gravel that would uncomfortably poke my foot through the flexible VFF sole. I had run on trails paved entirely in quail-egg gravel with no problem. The reason the paved roads caused the gravel to be a problem was because the gravel was immovable when sitting on the paved surface. On a gravel surface the stone would shift when stepped upon. On the paved surface the gravel would slam into the sole of the foot with the full force of the foot strike. This hurt.

I was nervous enough to need to pee something like 27 times. I began thinking that the people I kept running into at the restrooms would think I was stalking them. Then it occurred to me that they must have needed to pee almost 27 times for me to keep running into them in the restroom. At worst they would think I was just some old guy with a wandering bladder, not a pre-dawn toilet stalker.

I liked the attention that I got for the VFF. “Are you really running in those?”. “How do those work for you?” I must have burnt through a couple of my fifteen minutes of fame on that race morning. There was a younger fellow who was also running in a pair of VFF. I was more approachable and he looked a little jealous. I think the purple socks helped me. How can you not be drawn to talk with a white-haired man in lilac socks?

The pre-race pep-talk was given by a man with a largish belly who was apparently the race organizer. He told a few jokes and appeared generally affable. He pulled a woman from the crowd of racers who had run 238 marathons and had just two days before gotten married in Vegas. She stood on a stone fence and sang “America the Beautiful”. She beamed like a person with a super-power and there was an increase in energy for the crowd. I was getting more nervous and realized that I had to pee again.

I noticed a couple dressed in cycling vests that said on them. Looking closer I realized that the male was none other than Elden Nelson who blogs as Fatcyclist. His wife passed away last august after a protracted battle with cancer. Some of his posts on dealing with the trauma are as touching and heartfelt as any I have ever read on cancer survivorship. It was nice to see him out obviously comfortable in the company of a woman. Since he is a Utah Mormon she is probably the first woman he has dated and they are probably already engaged to be married [He posted about his engagement now...wish them the best].

When the race started I immediately realized three things:

   1) The weather was perfect for running
   2) I was stronger than I had suspected
   3) It was the worst road surface for the VFF ever.

The road base was some hardened mixture of mud and salt. It was as hard as concrete. Over this base they had deliberately spread quail-egg gravel. The first several miles were like this. After a couple of steps my feet hurt. After a few more they hurt tremendously.

Several people began conversations with me like ”How are those working for you?”.

I had too much pride to say “I hurt...please carry me?”

Instead I said “So far so good”.

I think that my limping with both feet gait gave away my discomfort. I began darting around, trying to avoid the bigger or more jagged stones. Eventually the pain fused into a general discomfort.

“Only 18.5 more miles to go.” I told myself.

In the initially shock and pain I forgot to set my GPS when I crossed the start. Since I started a bit to the back I’m sure it took me at least 30 seconds to cross the start.

I actually kept a steady (but very slow) pace up through the turn around and a good bit of the way back. My legs were so tense after wincing in pain several thousand times that my knee started to act up at around mile 12. I was worried that I would have to drop out. I slowed to a walk for a tenth of a mile and the knee loosened up. It was not injury; it was just a response to my ungainly foot-pain running style. I would have to walk out the knee a couple more times, but I knew I would finish.

Since I knew I would finish I made up my mind to tackle my sub 4 hour goal. I kept my pace slow enough to minimize the pain and fast enough to make up for my walks. By the time I hit the final couple of quail-egg hell miles I think my feet were numb from abuse. In the last mile I targeted another racer ahead of me.  I pathetically limp-ran past her in the last tenth of a mile.

I heroically stubled in to the finish line with, by my GPS, several minutes to spare. Then the official timer gave my time as 4:00:03. Remember that I had forgotten to set my GPS correctly at the start? I guess I had forgotten that in the last miles. Four official seconds off my goal!

Since no-one really cares about the official times of those who finish in the last 10% of the race I am going to claim the few seconds it took me to get to the start and proclaim success in my time goal. Success!

And that woman I passed in the last tenth of a mile? She would finish 98th out of 103 30K finishers. This put me in the top 95% of the racers and allowed me to claim goal 2. So, success, and success!

I went back to the finish and cheered some of the runners (mostly full marathon) in. I saw Nelson and his woman friend cross and yelled “Good one Fatty, way to go Fatty, now sprint to the finish”. He looked around all pleased at the individualized attention, but did not sprint in.

One woman almost caught a very worn looking opponent in the last hundred feet. Those end-stage slow motion marathon sprint contests are my favorite. There is something about seeing someone who has given all they have finding a tad more for an end-sprint that makes it look like anything is possible in this world.

I had a very hard time getting up and taking the bus back to furnace creek. The other VFF runner (who did the full marathon) rode the same bus back as I did. I asked him how it went with his VFF. “I finished” he said dejectedly. When I finally took off the VFF there were purple bruises on the bottoms of my feet. Ow.

When I got back to the tent for a nap it rained. Eventually the raining would become more important than the blossoming bruises on my feet.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

DV footrace pt I

The drive to Death Valley was all I had expected and more.

Driving from Wendover to Ely on alt 93 one surmounts “White Horse Pass” (1,838M). About a kilometer before WHP I saw five black horses standing on a snow covered hill. Four of the horses stood close together; one was quite a ways distant.

Everything from WHP to Tonopah was covered in snow.

There is an area called Lunar Crater off highway 6. The official name is “Lunar Crater National Natural Landmark”. There is a single large crater and a multitude of small black volcanic hills. Dirt roads snake off into the sagebrush and hint of adventure. This would be an interesting place to explore by mountain bike in the fall.

Black volcanic rock absorbs heat from the sun quickly and snow melts off it faster than the surrounding landscape. At Lunar Crater the effect was one where the small white hills looked like they were dusted with black ash. This is the opposite of what was really the case. Here the black volcanic hills were dusted with white snow.

The sun had set by Tonopah and so there may have been snow I did not see over everything until Beatty. From Beatty I descended Daylight Pass into Death Valley. I have never seen snow on the downhill side of Daylight Pass.

The outside temperature gauge on the Corolla began reading numbers I have not seen on it for months. By the time I hit the valley floor the gauge read 59 degrees! I had traveled five hundred miles and an entire season.

Death Valley is majestic and grand. The best way to really get around it is by mountain bike. In a car or truck the sky is constrained by the windshield and it is too much like watching the world unfold on a television set. On a motorcycle there is too much temptation to ride fast. The intervening spaces become “more alluvium” or “more washout”. On a mountain bike the immediate scenery has a chance to develop. The undistinguished gravel becomes a pile of colored rocks. The piles reveal small green sproutlings struggling for life. Walking is too slow for the distances of the park.

Roadbikes are okay for the park. There are miles and miles and miles of paved roads. One can spend days tolling around on a road bike with new adventures waiting each day.

Something like 95% of the roads in the park are unpaved however. Many, I would find out to my discomfort, harden to a concrete-like consistency. The hardness is inconsistent and these dirt roads are not suitable for a true roadbike. The mountain bike allows access to many interesting areas of the park hidden from the roadbiker.

I, of course, brought my mountain bike with me. Several people commented about what a poor idea this was. “You want to relax and take it easy before the race” they said. “No I don’t” I replied “I want to go around on my bike and enjoy my long weekend”. What was I going to do? Sit around and stare at the dark and cloudy sky?

On the Friday before the race I went mountain biking. I explored some roads that went off to the east. I hopped off the bike and hiked around on some marked “No bikes” trails. Here is a panorama I shot off a random east-side dirt road.

I found the start of the racecourse and explored the Westside road. Before I knew it I was three and a half hours and around 30 miles into the "short" ride. I then discovered Trail Canyon road. It branched off the Westside road near what would turn out to be around mile six of the race course. Trail canyon road was a gently sloping washout that could barely be called a road. The ruts snaked randomly through alluvial deposits of cobble-sized rocks. “This is” I thought “what you would get if you mixed Paris-Roubaix with very bad drugs”. I managed to go quite a ways up Trail canyon road before I discovered that I had broken a spoke.

I am a big guy so I discovered the broken spoke when the back wheel had gone out-of-true enough for the rear brake to interact with it. The interaction was quite annoying. It was like my brake was being applied by a poltergeist every revolution of the wheel. Very annoying.

Disconnecting the rear brake did decrease the interaction. It was still a ways back to the Furnace creek campground. This was much more difficult with the brakes rubbing every meter or so of forward travel. When I got back to the paved road I noticed an older roadbiker struggling along. I realized I might be able to catch him. So I did. Then I saw another slow roadbiker. Caught and passed her also, going uphill.

Somehow the combination of an almost fifty-mile bike excursion, a few hikes, the daemon brakemaster, and the random competitive energy spurts, left me somewhat more tired than I had wished when I got back to camp. Not the best pre-race taper.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Padded Cell

Every once in a while I get an e-mail suggesting ways to observe mysterious brain behavior. Often I am admonished that the underlying wiring patterns are evidence of “the fingerprint of god” on the human psyche. I’m not sure what sense that makes theologically, philosophically, or psychologically. It appears to be an unfortunate explanation to me. It suggests that we look to an invisible overlord for undecipherable explanations concerning something quite important to us, our brain.

Casual examples of mysterious brain behavior are fun. I especially like optical illusions. I was given one once where I was supposed to stare at an undulating pattern for a minute and then notice how the perception of the room changed. It was very interesting. Solid surfaces appeared to move, parallel surfaces ran skew. This was so interesting I then tried it for 15 minutes and ran around the house afterwards. I ran into some things, I instinctively flinched away from imaginary collisions with others. I then tried staring at it for 30 minutes and thought that it would be interesting to plot the amount of time spent staring at the illusion vs. the amount of time the effect lasted. My kids were getting somewhat concerned about my drunkenly running around the house at irregular intervals so I showed them the illusion. It’s all fun and games till something gets broken. After I deleted the illusion I have not found it again.

One mysterious brain behavior trick I get sent often is the one I call the Number Six Trick. It often comes in an e-mail worded thusly:

This is so funny that it will boggle your mind. And you will keep trying it at least 50 more times to see if you can outsmart your foot. But you can't!!!
1. While sitting at your desk, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles with it.
2. Now, while doing this, draw the number "6" in the air with your right hand. Your foot will change direction!!!
I told you so... And there is nothing you can do about it.

Sure enough my foot changes direction. I also notice that I have a tendency to kick stuff over in my office when I try it very hard. I once pretty much unplugged my computer. How fun is that?

I have noticed that the effect is different if you alternate the foot/hand combination you use. If you use alternating sides the effect is less pronounced. Left foot with right hand or right foot with left hand generates a variant pattern. For me the variances are not so much a defined changing direction as a becoming spastic. In order to fully explore the possibilities I would need to have more padded surfaces in my office. If I begin to decorate my office in “early Bellevue padded cell” style my family will become concerned. Sometimes science must take a backseat to fashion.

In my mind I have shown that the wiring behind this trick is located in the hemispheres. It is not caused by some strange motor neuron issue. In other words this trick says something about the brain orchestrating the gyrations not the body doing the gyrations.

It is not hard to find that there are ways completely around this trick. The trick works best for layabouts like me. When people practice transcendental levels of motor coordination they are apparently able to work around this trick. Mystics, Yoga devotees, and Kung-fu masters have all supposedly beaten this trick. There is supposedly a video somewhere of Jackie Chan trumping this trick. I have not really looked for the video too hard. I am extremely receptive to the idea that this trick is beatable and the level of proof needed to convince me of that fact is small.

What this means is that the trick shows a malleable pattern of activity in the brain that controls functions subconsciously. Because intense conscious concentration cannot alter the behavior in a reasonable period of time the pattern appears to be permanent. Concentrating harder does not generate faster results.

To cause a change the individual must be able to load instructions from the cerebrum to the cerebellum. Finding masters at foot twirling with simultaneous number drawing might be possible. There is probably a video on YouTube of a group of young monks drawing a hundred digits of Pi in the air while spinning both their feet in complex patterns, but I have not looked for it. The idea that people who are adept at transferring data between their cerebrum and cerebellum for other activities can also do so for this trick is interesting. It is interesting because it suggests that it is the communication which must be learned, not the message.

Each of the disciplines which have purportedly beaten the six trick are steeped in spiritual theologies. The mental activities are exercises in manipulation of spiritual principles. The tricks of re-working patterns in the subconscious brain are presented as proofs that the spiritual mumbo-jumbo used in performing those tricks is true. It does not prove that at all. It does, however, show that the spiritual mumbo-jumbo is effective.

The problem with tying a communication technique to theology is that it limits the breadth and complexity of what can be said. I firmly believe that it is possible to create an engaging and effective conscious-subconscious communication method that is adaptable enough to transmit whatever message is desired. This communication method will free people to express more of their valuable humanity.

There are many things to do that are much more enriching than foot twirling. For me the path to foot twirling perfection goes through a padded room. If I end up in a padded cell I do not want it to be because of my interior decorating talents. I will continue to explore this aspect of my brain.

At least until I change my mind about it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Six Stars

Highway 50 has been called the loneliest road in America. As one travels it from the Utah town of Delta, through the state of Nevada to the California border, there are times when the road is the only visible hint of human existence. If there was an end to the world one could travel highway 50 and never quite reach it. At night the sky is one of the blackest available on dry land.

Nevada hosts some of the greatest excesses of conspicuous over-lighting anywhere on the planet. Even Las Vegas and Reno are insignificant areas of glow on highway 50’s horizon. Even the gazillion candle-watt lamps pointed straight into the sky along the Vegas strip are swallowed by the intervening distance and apparent emptiness. When there is no moon a car’s headlights make the world small. On highway 50, when the moon is new, the vastness compresses the car and its driver into insignificance. This weekend the moon’s last quarter will be weakly waning.

If 50 is lonely, part of the reason is the breakup with highway 6 that occurs in Ely Nevada. Highway 6 is fiercely independent and wild. It takes off into empty parts of the map where features are named just to fill in the space. Highway 6 is not lonely though, it is anti-social. Highway 6 wants to be alone.

There are ghost towns along highway 6 that are populated by mischievous poltergeists. Far from everywhere an artistic arrangement will be made of highway detritus. The spectral jesters’ message is clear: “we are watching friend, and we will mess with your mind”.

I once saw a man walking alone down highway 6. He was pulling an all-terrain shopping cart by means of a rope-harness assembly. He was approaching the center of a wide valley. In the center of the valley was a road bend formed by an obtuse angle of two laser-straight intersecting lines. The road could have traveled a broad arc through the valley. The gradual turn would have saved time and asphalt. The angle, though slight, was an abrupt feature. When they laid out the road, the engineers must have used their enviably straight rulers to draw the best path from one someplace and then they drew the best path from someplace else, here in the valley those two lines intersected. It was the only feature the road had in the valley. There was a widening of the shoulder where people had pulled off at the bend like it was a destination of some sort. When I saw him the shopping-cart man was over an hour away from the bend. I wonder if he stopped there for lunch?

I would like to put up one of those roadside marker pillars at the road bend. On it I would put a plaque that read:
Many years ago two arbitrary lines
intersected right here on an engineer’s map.
 Now you are reading this plaque
and it is an important place in the world.
Perhaps there should also be a small concrete bench there so people could stop and have lunch more comfortably.

I have engaged in nighttime fieldwork near desert roads. Just outside of the tunnel-vision attention zone of the passing cars’ headlights I remained unseen. I did not know anything about the occupants of the speeding cars, but I imagined they felt me watching them. On highway 50 you are small and alone. On highway 6 you know that things are watching you from the edge of darkness.

The giggling night things are not there to watch the few cars that race highway 6 each night. They are there to see the stars. The darker the moon is; the brighter the night sky is. If Carl Sagan had glanced at the sky while traveling highway 6 he would have immediately realized that his estimate of “Billions and Billions” of stars in the universe was a serious underestimate. There are few places where starlight alone can define a horizon. The night things of highway six are standing with their heads out of the Earth’s open window into the cosmos. They feel the cosmic wind on their upturned faces. They open their mouths and their tongues flop out into the rush of flowing star stuff. They breathe heavily the cosmic scents carried by the places the Earth speeds through. Sometimes they accidentally swallow an insect. Mmm…tasty.

Today I plan on traveling Highway 6. I will travel it en route to, of all aptly named places, Death Valley. There I will be running a 30K trail race. I may travel at night, so I have stocked up on liquid caffeine for the trip. I will be alone, amped up, and laughing at my spiral progress through the universe.

I had originally planned on running the Death Valley marathon, but training issues have caused me to re-asses my goals. I overtrained enough to suffer a slight knee injury. The knee injury is healed, but I am now undertrained for the race.

My goals for the race are:
1) Finish in under five hours (they close the course if one is slower than this)
2) Finish in the top 95% (Since everyone must travel to the event I think the DNS contingent will put me into this group should I finish DFL amongst the runners)
I am confident that I will be able to achieve all my goals. I would really like to finish in under four hours, which should also be possible.

Some of you are thinking: “AOA’s goals are too easy to be worthwhile”. To you I say: “Death Valley in February is one of the most beautiful places in the northern hemisphere”.

Some of you are thinking: “AOA is so slow that I could almost run as fast as him”. To you I say “Enter the races, embrace the adventure!”.

Some of you are thinking “I wish I could travel with AOA to Death Valley”.

We could crank up the Corolla’s heat against the sub-zero desert cold, then open the windows to let in the night wind. Maybe we would have strange electronic music on the CD player, maybe we would be listening only to the rush of the freezing air through the open windows. Our fingertips would meet somewhere between the stick-shift and the parking-brake lever. We would trace each others’ pulse from tip to palm to wrist. There we would linger, testing the sensation of pulse for accuracy. discerning a beat similar to, but not my own, I would know that I was not alone in the car.

With great joy we could poke our heads out the windows and howl at the night sky. The things at the edge of darkness would stop their giggling for a moment to howl at the universe in return.

To you I say: “I wish you were here”.

I will, however, be alone on this trip.

I will try and remember to stop at the big valley bend and toast the forgotten highway 6 engineers with a caffeinated soda.

I will remember to roll down the window and put my face into the wind. I will open my mouth and let my tongue roll out. I will breathe the scent of star stuff and be glad.

I may even catch an insect.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Brain Tracks

A weekend ago I went on a ski-in camping trip. It was up a popular trail. A group of us stayed in a yurt. It was around four miles in (some people said a little less, some people said about 4.5).

I do not ski much. I have an old set of skis, boots, and poles I picked up second hand. They looked very different from what anyone else on the trail had. I fell down lots.

Throughout the weekend I found myself exploring the process of skiing. At first I was content with not falling down (as much). Then I left the parking lot and began moving up the trail. There are different variations in motion caused by simply bending one’s knees a little more. Leaning a little forward or back dramatically changes the dynamics on the skis. Changing the force of my ankle on the boot alters the tracking. Changing the ankle force one way while changing the knee bend just a little and then modulating my lean creates an entirely different experience. After skiing for a while I became aware of other factors that had individual and synergistically combinatorial effects. Some never received names and I referred to them with poor descriptions like “that thing with my shoulder” or “my wrist kinda out when the pole is just so”.

When I had a set of activities that appeared to be working I tried to make them instinctual. I relaxed and “felt” the motion instead of thinking it. Most of the action sets were probably sub-optimal and awkward at best. I would begin to fatigue during the repetitions. When the fatigue reached a certain point I would stumble and often fall.

The older XC bindings are difficult to work so I would try and stand up without removing my skis. I became quite good at this. In order to right myself I would have to squirm around a bunch. I would get my skis pointed in a good direction. Then I would plant the poles and push myself up to a crouch, then stand. It afforded me a couple of minutes after each fall to gather my thoughts.

My thoughts usually progressed like this:

1) Am I hurt?
2) No, good, did anyone see me?
3) Are they laughing?
4) Hard?
5) I should try to get up
6) How did I fall this time?

I would like to say that “reading up” on something like XC-skiing is totally worthless. Certainly when one is slipping and falling in the parking lot with only one ski on there is little learnt from a book that can help. In the moments of reflection after a fall there is some small advantage to having “read up”. Lying on my back (I did fall on my face a couple of times, but the sequence is similar) with snowflakes lighting and melting on my face I had a calm moment. Once I got back on the skis I was heading for a fall so I could not be as calm. When I answered the How question I had an inkling of what I had done wrong. If I had fallen backwards (a favorite of mine) I probably had leaned wrong or overcorrected due to too little bend in my knees. If the ski had rolled out from under my foot I was turning my ankle wrong or pointing the skis askew. If the skis tangled themselves up I was not concentrating on keeping them parallel, and probably leaning too far forward.

I had a rudimentary error correcting scheme. It would have been better to” just know” what to do ahead of time, but I did not. It is all too easy to believe that the application of reason to the error correction scheme could have been learned before the fall. This discounts the powerful learning effect that falling provides. There is something about skidding down a well-groomed ski trail on your face that opens doors to perception which are normally closed.

This is again the process of developing dialog between areas of the brain. The mind which is used to develop the dialog is running in the same brain. Because the same hardware is being used for the administrative program (setting up the dialog) and the operational program (the skiing dialog) simple misaddressing of thoughts can cause problems. The most common problem I was running into was attitude. Something as simple as having a attractive woman look at me in concern and ask “are you OK old man?” causes significant disruption in the cooperative functioning of the thought processes in my brain. Without the proper attitude I would describe the tumbles as failures and ascribe them to weaknesses that were uncorrectable. I may actually have natural balance deficiencies, but how can examining that help me ski?

I protected my attitude two ways. First, I used disarming dialog. No matter how awkward one falls responding to an “are you OK old man?” with “Yes, of course, you just look so much more lovely from down here” is cool. Second, I used repetition of thought. The more one thinks in a specific pattern the more developed that pattern becomes. It is possible to demonstrate macroscopic changes in brain cell structure in response to repetitive stimulus. This structural change is directly correlated with learning.

One can say that thought patterns can be learned by repetition and that the learning causes a permanent change in brain structure.

The actual observable wiring change takes longer than I was going to give it on a short ski trip. However, I suggest that the long-term re-wiring occurs as a result of the accumulation of immediate responsive changes. One may not get patterns discernable on microscopic examinations of thin slices of one’s brain, but changes do occur. These changes create “tracks” for further refinement of the learning repetition.

The yurt was at the end of the groomed trail. We dropped our packs, recharged in the yurt’s warmth, and explored further. Beyond the yurt there was no trail. There were two feet of powder covering a gently sloping wooded landscape. A smaller group of explorers went about a half a mile in. We shared breaking trail, but it was hard going. Eventually my companions decided to turn around. I had to continue. Here is a picture of me disappearing into the woods. They took it in case it would be a last picture of me.

I went up another couple of miles. Snowy woods during a snowfall are silent, still, and wonderful. I was still falling but I was more often upright than not. My route was out-and-back so I returned on the trail I had broken.

It was so much easier to return on my broken trail. Both the tracks I had cut and the slight downhill worked together to create a totally different skiing experience. Instead of slogging I was gliding. It was as if the earth had learned how I should ski.