Monday, December 29, 2008

High Plains Running

I went for the craziest ten-mile run of my life this morning. Six inches of cold, powdery snow fell two days ago and then a steady 25 to 30 miles-per-hour wind started blowing from the West. Sometimes after a storm, the wind comes down the East slope of the Rockies and out into the Plains, sweeping everything not tied down out ahead of it. The snow streaks across the roads and freezes into a super-slick layer of black ice or gathers into drifts many-inches deep halfway across the lanes of traffic. On a short drive from Billings to Laurel yesterday we passed at least five cars that had spun off the highway and into the ditches on either side of the road.

I am signed-up to run a half marathon in New Hampshire on February 15, so I am on a training schedule that had me doing a ten-mile run today. It seemed like a good idea for me to get out into the cold and the wind—(mid-February on the coast of New Hampshire might just be the same)—so I put on my new Secret Santa running shorts from my cousin Nicole and an undershirt beneath my running shirt and out the door I went.

I got on First Avenue and headed uphill, slowly running my way out of the valley. It was very windy and as the road turned slightly east of north, it struck me that the wind that was whipping me along from behind would soon enough be pummeling me from the front when I turned back for the return five miles. The snow from two days ago was still very light and powdery and the wind was such that the blowing snow never got any higher than six inches off of the ground. It whipped across the fields and across the road in a serpentine motion—looking more like smoke or steam than snow.

The way the blowing snow looked combined with the way it stung my ankles and lower calves to make me think of malicious spirits. I was reminded of Tolkein’s description of Ring Wraiths or the movie depiction of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter film—before He Who Shall Not Be Named has found a body to inhabit.

There was one advantage to the relentless wind that I could not have predicted in advance of my run. Wildlife on the sides of the road couldn’t hear me coming until I was right next to them. In this way I managed to get within 20 feet of a bald eagle as it stood in the snow and picked at the frozen carcass of a mule deer. When the bird finally saw me it didn’t lurch or panic at all. It fixed me in its sharp yellow eye, held steady for a long moment, and then simply opened its wings into the strong headwind and with a slight change in the angle of its feathers it rose up and drifted away in a graceful arc to the east, out over a stumpy cornfield.

I watched the bird for a long moment and then continued my run. By the time I had gone another quarter mile up the road the eagle had circled back around and was once again tearing chunks off of the roadkill deer.

Once I had gone five miles up the road, out of the valley and into the high plains, I had gotten into a rhythm and felt the impulse to just keep running and running and running. The land is so big and the sky so open and the morning so extreme that part of me wanted to be extreme, too. What would happen if I just kept going? How far could I go? My body felt like a machine and the motion was hypnotizing. What I really wanted was to be that eagle and be carried on the wind for as long as it would blow. I felt myself disappearing into the landscape—a tiny dot in the vast sage and scrub landscape. I had no sense of struggle, no awareness of the cold. I was simply moving and wanted to keep moving.

Eventually I turned around, into the wind, and the run became work again. A friendly woman driving by stopped and asked if I wanted a ride back to town. She was apparently moved to pity by the crust of ice coating my lower legs and my beard and mustache. I politely declined her offer and made it back to Grandpas Andy’s house, glad I had made myself go out and sure that my half marathon would be better because of it.

I am also glad that I have my memory of that eagle and of the feeling of self-abnegation that running can sometimes bring.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Montana Christmas Pictures

Isabel, Erica, and I were all awake by 6:30 Christmas morning. This far north, that is still an hour before sunrise.

The rest of the extended family was not ready to start in on opening presents right away, so Isabel patiently bide her time watching "A Christmas Story" for the ten thousandth time.

Once everyone else was up, dressed, fed, caffeinated, and ready to go, we got down to the serious business of unwrapping. Isabel was thrilled to get the iPod she has been wishing for.

She also got a skateboard, but because outside looked like this...

...she had to be satisfied by trying it out in the garage.

We had a good Christmas with lots of friends and food and family and snow. Who could ask for anything more?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Have Identified the Problem...

“I have identified the problem, I just haven’t made the time to fix it.”

My father-in-law said these words last night as we drove through the cold and dark of Montana on the evening before the Winter Solstice. We were headed east from Billings to Miles City for an early Christmas dinner with fifty of Erica’s closest relatives and the plastic panel next to me was rattling in a way that annoyed us all. I stuffed a pillow between my seat and the panel and the rattling stopped. I hadn’t fixed the problem, but I had stopped the noise.

A few hours later, after consuming about 4000 calories—mostly from butter and sugar—we got in the van and started back for Billings. As I rested my head against the inside of the window, looking for Northern Lights in the fifteen-below-zero degree darkness, Mike’s words came back to me: “I have identified the problem, I just haven’t made the time to fix it.” It struck me that in the larger context of my life, this sentence rings truer than I am strictly comfortable with. But before I could devote any of my overtired, overfull attention to this realization, I fell asleep—my exhalations freezing on the inside of the window into a thick layer of ice by the time I woke up in Billings.

The following morning I forced myself out the door for a four-mile run through air that was struggling (unsuccessfully) to reach zero degrees. As I ran the sweat made its way out through the three layers of clothes I had on and froze as hoarfrost on my legs, chest, back, and beard. To keep my mind off the frigid temperatures, I thought about what Mike had said the night before.

I have been reading some of Carl Jung’s writings about the challenges of mid-life, and this idea of identifying problems and working to make things different and better has been on my mind a lot lately.

Carl Jung identified 5 main phases of midlife:

* Accommodation (meeting others' expectations - actually, this takes place in the first part of life, but is the context in which midlife processes take place)
* Separation (rejecting the accommodated self)
* Liminality (a period of uncertainty, where life seems directionless and meanders)
* Reintegration (working out 'who I am' and becoming comfortable with that identity)
* Individuation (facing up to and accepting the undesirable aspects of our own character)

Along with these phases, (which are often non-linear and overlapping), Jung identifies the main choice adult humans have to make as they enter the second half of their lives. Jung says people can direct the bulk of their energies into conserving what they have created in their lives OR they can continue to be a creative force for change in their own lives.

I am at that exact point of having to make this choice. My mind and heart tell me to choose the second path, but I am finding a lifetime of habit to be a sometimes-powerful obstacle to overcome. I feel just like my father-in-law with his van door: I have identified the problems, I just have to decide whether, when, and how to fix them.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

So Much Depends On "Napoleon Dynamite"

The people in charge of Netflix are disappointed by their movie recommendation algorithm. The customers of NetFlix are even more disappointed. So the people in charge have opened up the code, allowing anyone to see it, and asked for edits to the program that would improve their customers’ satisfaction rates. The Sunday New York Times Magazine had a story about the search for a better algorithm in a recent issue.
To make recommendations, NetFlix runs a program much like that used by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other online retailers. It looks at what you have rented or purchased and asks you to rate as many films, books, or purchases as you have patience to rate. Then the numbers get crunched, you get compared to many, many other customers and their ratings, and out comes a recommendation for you. It may say something like, “Other customers who have liked that movie you just rated so highly have also watched and enjoyed ‘Porky’s Two—The Next Day.’ Would you like to add it to your cart now?”

Approximately seven out of ten times, the software at NetFlix gets it right and the customer actually rents, watches, enjoys, and rates the movie highly. Management would be much happier with a success rate of 80% or higher. They feel they have taken the code as far as they can on their own and now it is time to see what the dedicated amateurs can do. After looking through the data, many of those entering the contest have come to the same conclusion: the programmer who can figure out what to do with “Napoleon Dynamite” will win the prize.

“Napoleon Dynamite”, it turns out, provokes VERY strong feelings in people. And unpredictably so. Customer rankings of that one movie don’t seem to correlate in any predicable way with any other set of films. People who otherwise seem to have exactly the same taste, even on obscure foreign films and artsy French New Wave cinema, disagree strongly on “Napoleon Dynamite.” And because of this film and a few others that push people’s buttons just as hard and just as unpredictably, the software seems stuck in the 70% Success range.

I thought of this “Napoleon Dynamite” conundrum yesterday on the train into New York. We had convinced some new friends to spend a fair chunk of money and much of a Sunday going to the city to see "Slava’s Snowshow". It is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to anyone who hasn’t seen it. In fact, it is very hard to describe Slava’s Snowshow to myself—and I HAVE seen it. The best I can do is say that Slava is a Russian existentialist clown who is equal parts Charlie Chaplain and Vladimir from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Erica, Isabel, and I have seen Slava three times now and we think it is brilliant. I really do think Slava himself should win a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

But suddenly it struck me that I didn’t really know these people all that well and here I was asking them to trust me on an item as personal as taste in quirky performances. I had a flash of a scene in my mind of our friends rising in the middle of the first part of the show, grabbing their five year-old by the hand, and storming out in a huff, muttering about “what a waste of money—this is so STUPID.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” makes for such a tricky flick because it is so unpredictable. A person would be on solid ground recommending many movies to a friend whose taste they were somewhat familiar with, but not Napoleon Dynamite. It is simply too quirky and too unpredictably polarizing. Sitting on the train I was suddenly afraid that maybe Slava’s Snowshow was the Broadway version of Napoleon Dynamite.

As things turned out, my fears were unfounded. Our friends loved the show and we had a good time. But the whole experience got me thinking about preferences and about how much or how little our taste in books, movies, television shows, sports teams, music, etc. says about us and how much we feel other people's taste in these same domains says about them.

I imagine we can use our preferences as shorthand. We can employ them to send signals to others when we want to communicate something about ourselves. If the others are tuned to the signal, it works and a message is sent. It might not always be the message we think we are sending, but it certainly gives others information about us. On the train ride back from New York I nodded off thinking that it would be great to have a constellation of books, movies, television series, and musical acts that would best represent Erica and me to the world and act as a clear signal of who we are and what we are like. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more important it seemed to me that Erica and I create a list of cultural and artistic references that we can drop into conversations with new potential friends to measure their reactions and thus decide if they are worth pursuing as friends.

It would save so much time and effort if, instead of trading dinner invitations and play dates between our kids, we could just show each other our lists and decide from there. I might be on to something. It would be like speed dating for couples. I know already our list would include the television series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords," music by Greg Brown and Kevin Johansen, the movies "Being John Malkovich" and "The Lives of Others," and books like "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Mating."

Though I would probably leave off "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Slava's Snowshow", just to be safe.