Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 141 - Giving Up Visual Media (for a week)

I have never lived without visual media. By that, I mean since I was a child television, movies, and eventually the internet have been a part of my routine. In my youngest years television and movies served as a source of stimulus and education as I grew from a baby to a child, and they continued to be a part of my daily life as I grew into adulthood and ultimately reached my 31st year. Stated plainly, television, movies, and other visual media have been omnipresent in my life. Realizing I could choose to forego using these devices if I really wanted to do so, I would periodically throw around the idea of what it would be like to "unplug" from visual media for awhile and see how its absence would change my life. However, each time such a thought would cross my mind I would acknowledge the degree of reliance I had developed on such sources of entertainment and communication over the course of my life. As a result, I would tuck the idea away as a ridiculous concept and continue using the television and computers as I always had. As far as I was concerned, television, movies, and other sources of visual media were simply unavoidable, and I wasn't about to try to change that.

Of course, in a year of new experiences such convictions are bound to be challenged, which brings me to today's "I have never..." experience and the second week long sub-challenge of my "I have never..." year. With my objective of exploring new things for the sake of self-discovery guiding me, I decided this year provided the perfect motivation to finally figure out what it would be like, more or less, to live without visual media. In turn, I made a plan to give up television, movies, social media and other forms of visual entertainment for a week during my "I have never..." year. Eventually, that objective caused me to narrow in on this week as the week to make it possible. As a result, I intend to avoid television, movies, and any other forms of visual media this week, with the only exceptions coming in the form of work obligations and making updates to this blog. Although I'm not looking forward to the likely void that will come with the absence of the familiar forms of visual entertainment, I know this week will give me plenty of opportunities to use my new free time for other, better purposes. This should be an interesting week. I just hope I have the wherewithal to make it happen for a full week.

Day 1:
Today was odd. Throughout the day I caught myself reaching for familiar sources of information and entertainment that rely on television and other forms of visual media almost exclusively. As a result, I had a few close calls with breaking my "I have never..." sub-challenge on the very first day I was trying the new experience. Luckily, I stopped myself just before I accessed the usual forms of visual media that are so readily accessible in the modern era. It was a constant battle to avoid the habits and forms of muscle memory I have developed around the use of a smartphone, accessing the internet, and turning on the television during my moments of downtime. Everything in my body was telling me to look forward to the routines surrounding these devices, but I forced myself to avoid them throughout the entire day.

Additionally, a trip to run some errands this evening opened my eyes to the constant barrage of visual stimulus we encounter in our daily lives. Perhaps I have become progressively more immune to the presence of such sources as they have become more prevalent, but now that I'm actively aware of their presence I couldn't help but notice the screens, videos, and internet-based resources that are everywhere in modern life. In fact, I actually had to think about how to finish my errands in a way that permitted me to avoid visual media altogether. It was a task to keep my eyes off of such sources of information and media as I worked through the aisles of my shopping trips. There were literally television screens and monitors hanging from walls, lining store shelves, and demanding consumers' attention at every turn. Although I eventually figured out a way to get through my errands with my "I have never..." goal intact, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of visual media in everyday life.

With the night starting to wind down after arriving home tonight, I turned on the radio and listened to the news of the day. With the monotone sounds of new anchors carrying through the otherwise quiet house, it was easy to draw comparisons to a bygone era where the radio served as the primary source of entertainment in the everyday lives of people. As Rachael and I relaxed and worked on some independent tasks into the night, the radio provided a backdrop as the hours passed. The feeling was strange and a little bit empty in a way, which made me realize the extent to which the television and the internet occupy my time on a daily basis. While I don't feel it yet, I'm sure this week will give me some valuable perspective on the value of time spent on such devices each day. I just need to get more familiar with their absence before I will be able to focus on any sort of value the lack of their presence brings.

Day 2:
I found it a little easier to deal with foregoing visual media today, but there are still plenty of challenges presented by their absence. Particularly, I'm beginning to feel out of touch with current events going on around my city and my nation. While the newspaper at my office did give me some background on the previous day's events, it was painfully obvious I was unaware of ongoing news events as the day progressed. As someone normally up to speed on breaking news, I found myself unaware of the topics being discussed by some of my co-workers as the workday moved into the afternoon. With the biggest focus being placed on the developing story of the government shutdown, I tried to pick up information from others where I could, but ultimately realized I would consistently be a day behind on the news for as long as I stayed away from visual media.

This evening proved a little easier given Rachael and I went out to grab a bite to eat when I arrived home from work. With beautiful weather continuing in the earliest days of Autumn, we decided to eat outside so I could avoid any form of visual media that may have been present in the restaurant's interior.  By the time we finished our meal and made it home it was already 8:30 pm, which made it easy to settle in for the night without any strong desire to turn on the television or get on the internet. To fill the time before bed I simply turned on the radio again and tried to get caught up on the day's events. To my surprise, it was actually a relaxing way to end the day, and it made me ready to fall asleep earlier than my usual bedtime. With that, I realized an added benefit of foregoing visual media this week may be an unforeseen opportunity to get caught up on my sleep. If that's the case, I just might give up television, movies, and the internet a little more often.

Day 3:
I fared relatively well on my third day without television, video, and internet media, but the day presented a slew of instances that made me realize the challenges of living without visual media in the modern world. Specifically, determining the address for tonight's "I have never..." event and checking the weather for Thursday proved nearly impossible without using the internet or the television. Luckily, the first issue was resolved when I realized I had written down the address of the location for the Diamond Way Buddhist Center, but I found myself having to "cheat" a bit on checking the weather by having Rachael look it up on her phone. Although it felt as though I was bending the rules a bit, I figured asking her to take a look for me was roughly equivalent to asking someone in passing conversation. Of course, that may just be me trying to justify my actions,but it is better than the alternative of failing outright during my ongoing "I have never..." sub-challenge.

Although the day presented some challenges, this evening helped me refocus on the feasibility of going the rest of the week without visual media. Some dinner plans with a friend and my first experience with meditation occupied enough of my time that I found myself with little spare time. As a result, the idea of perusing the internet or sitting down to watch television never crossed my mind; even when Rachael decided to turn on the TV toward the end of the night. As she settled in and watched a show, I happily excused myself to the dining room and spent some time writing and wrapping up my day until she was finished. While I admittedly had some desire to sink into the sofa and gloss over in front of the TV, it wasn't a challenge for me to pass on doing so. I was able to busy myself until it was time for bed, and that was good enough to help me stave off any strong desire to give up on my challenge. Now, I just have to wait to see if that perspective remains tomorrow.

Day 4:
Realizing I was more than half way through my week without visual media gave me some motivation to keep pushing forward with my "I have never..." sub-challenge today. That stated, I must admit I'm growing a bit tired of living without television, video, and internet. It is not that the absence of these forms of media makes me feel like something is missing, rather the absence of these forms of media makes me feel like I am missing out on nearly everything. I have never felt so disconnected in my life. I am out of the loop with current events, I am outside the main channels of communication used by my family and friends, and I am missing tools and resources I use in my life nearly everyday. In an era of convenience, I am bound to the inconvenient, dated methods of communication, research, and entertainment of bygone eras. Basically, I have warped backward in time while the rest of the world around me keep trudging forward.

Needless to say, today was a tough day without social media. I actually found myself somewhat frustrated throughout the day as I encountered problems I knew had easy resolutions with tools I couldn't use. Case in point, as I was trying to prepare for this weekend's events I needed to determine how much time to allocate to drive to a location. While I knew I could easily get this information online, my "I have never..." sub-challege forced me to track down a map, do my best to estimate the mileage between points, and run the math to determine an estimated travel time. In another example, making some efforts to plan an alternative "I have never..." event for a day left vacant by a change in plans proved nearly impossible without internet access. I had little I could do other than look at magazines, local papers, and some brochures Rachael picked up around town to find a suitable event. Luckily, Rachael was kind enough to do a little research on my behalf and help me track down a new "I have never..." event for the vacant day. Without her, I don't know what I would have done to fix the problem.

Being stripped of familiar resources and modern sources of information sucks. There is no other way to describe it. At this point, it goes without saying that I am looking forward to the end of this week. Regaining access to forms of visual media will be more than a simple return to the norm, it will be a relief. Monday can't get here soon enough...

Day 5:
Today's workday and tonight's trip to the Wisconsin State Historical Museum provided good distractions from the continued absence of visual media in my life. Although my goal I had to avoid the few video displays at the museum tonight, the bulk of the displays were physical items from periods of Wisconsin's past, which were more than enough to keep me interested and occupied. However, upon arriving home tonight I immediately slipped back into a state of subtle frustration at the challenges a lack of television, video, and internet pose in keeping my life organized and in occupying my free time. Specifically, the inability to get a current weather forecast, the inability to research information for tomorrow's "I have never..." event, and the fact that Rachael spent to majority of the night on watching videos and checking feeds online left me feeling completely disconnected yet again.

With that in mind. I guess it could be worse. At least I still have the radio to feed me some sorts of information about what is going on in the world around me... but it still can't help me get directions.

Day 6:
A busy day kept me away from visual media with relative ease until this evening when a visit from my good friend, Ryan, took us out on the town. Everywhere we went televisions were blasting football games in the direction of every seat we took. In turn, I did my best to sit at angles where the screens were left at my peripherals as to maintain my goal. As the night pressed on I found myself being successful in avoiding visual media, but topics of discussion and the frequent reliance on smartphones by all those around made me wish I had some resources back in my possession. Eventually, that perspective made me cave on one portion of my week-long goal when I accessed social media on my phone to look up a recent conversation between a friend and me. Honestly, I didn't realize I was breaking one part of my goal until it was too late. It just happened, and although I felt guilty about it, I ultimately accepted the fact that it happened and gave myself a bit of credit for avoiding social media for nearly six days.

With the last day of my visual media challenge right around the corner, I can say I'm very happy this one is drawing to a close. Although I can say the experience has taught me I'm not necessarily reliant on visual media, it has taught me life is much easier with them at my disposal. If anything, the biggest takeaway from the experience is that I shouldn't take television, video, internet access, and other forms of visual media for granted. I'm lucky to live a life that presents the opportunity to have such luxuries, and I'm happy this experience gave me that reminder.

As I write this I am less than 24 hours away from the end of my goal. Tomorrow is another busy day with a lot of travel planned. That should make it easy to last through the end of my visual-media-free week, which ends a little before 9:00 pm tomorrow. Sure, I had a slip today, but I know the rest of this week should be a breeze. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Day 7:
Today's "I have never..." event, seeing the Broadway performance of The Book of Mormon, made the final day of my visual media sub-challege a breeze. After getting ready this morning, Ryan and I spent several hours on the road making the trip to Chicago for the performance. Once we arrived, we made our way to the theatre and watched the show, which was one of the most hilarious performances of any kind I have ever seen. The subsequent drive home was unexpectedly long at nearly three and a half hours, causing us to arrive home around 8:30 tonight. By the time we unloaded the car, got in the house, and had a bite to eat I realized the end of my week without visual media had quietly come to an end unnoticed. Surprisingly, I found myself feeling someone indifferent about the conclusion, which made me think living without visual media really wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

This "I have never..." sub-challege was relatively challenging one, but I'm glad I did it. Overall, it was insightful and provided me some great perspective on how I live my day to day life. I recognize this experience will likely help me remove the frequency of visual media in my life, but I'm happy the week has come to an end. Welcome back to my life, modern technology. It was strange living without you...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Day 140 - Taking a Beekeeping Class

I have never taken a beekeeping class. Now, let me be forward in saying this “I have never...” event is something that came about as a result of happenstance and a healthy bit of curiosity. At no point before my “I have never...” journey has beekeeping been something I sought to do in my life, but when I stumbled upon a chance to take a beekeeping class during some recent “I have never...” planning, I figured I could give it a try. After all, I have always found the concept of beekeeping to be particularly intriguing. When I would encounter photos and videos of people in full body suits and veiled hoods working to collect honey among a swarm of bees I would always pause to think about what such an experience would feel like. That stated, the potential of bee stings was enough for me to write the event off as a crazy endeavor and leave it at that.

Photo Credit: Mad Urban Bees LLC

Of course, that was before I was aware of the option to take a beekeeping class. While I maintained plenty of reservations about the beekeeping process and the potential risks it carries with it, my desire for knowledge slowly shifted my perspective on giving the practice a try why I came across the class offering online some months ago. At first, I passed over the beekeeping class offering with little more than a second thought, but I found myself returning to the concept of taking the class on and off as time passed. Eventually, this periodic revisit of the idea started moving the concept from “crazy” to “potentially worth giving a try” in my mind, until I finally decided to act on taking the class. After recruiting my friend, Patrick, to accompany me during the session, I pulled the trigger and booked to seats in the September 29th class. Although I still had plenty of hesitation about taking a class that involved purposely messing with a hive of bees, I committed to obtaining the experience; even if it meant I walked away with a few welts on my body.

The hives
With the day of the class finally upon us, Patrick and I got together early this afternoon and drove to the beekeeping class location near the Ale Asylum on Madison’s north side. Upon arriving at the building, we were surprised to find it was actually the beekeeper and Mad Urban Bees business owner’s home. Although the location was a normal, unassuming home from the road, Patrick and I quickly discovered the property behind the house was tailored for beekeeping. On a small deck at the back of the house rows of chairs sat before a series of beekeeping displays, stacks of beekeeping tools and equipment occupied open spaces around the building, and stirring hives of bees sat in stacks of white boxes near the fence line at the back of the property. With some time left before the start of the class, Patrick and I walked the property discussing the containers, slats, boxes, and drums we came across. As we talked about the devices we encountered it was clear both of us were equally unaware of their independent purposes. In response, I felt my curiosity about the beekeeping process building as we walked back to the seating area and prepared for the class to begin.

Minutes later the owner of Mad Urban Bees, Nathan, appeared from a rear entrance of the house and walked over to greet the group of roughly 12 people sitting with us on the deck. After a brief introduction, Nathan proceeded to tell us his intention was to help us better understand bee behavior, the structure of a beehive, and the process of beekeeping by the end of the three-hour class. He was quick to emphasize how it was important to let go of stigmas associated with bees in order to complete the class successfully and become a successful beekeeper. Continuing, he stated doing so was the only way each of us could understand the nature of the animals and the critical role they play in our lives. To drive the point home, he openly stated he, as a beekeeper of six years, actually has a bee allergy, and that the bees have no intention to sting anything, including humans, given the vast majority of them will die after using their stinger. Understanding his effort was directed at dispelling fears associated with bees before delving into the specifics of beekeeping, the group acknowledged factual nature of his statements. Given my subtle underlying fear of getting stung during our beekeeping experience, I found the remarks reassuring to say the least. After all, if someone with a bee allergy can make a living beekeeping, I figured it was likely I could make it through my first experience relatively unscathed.

Pounds of bees?!?
Once Nathan was finished with his introduction, he dove into the core of the class with a 90-minute discussion of all things beekeeping. At first, he walked us through the basic tools and structure of the beehives he keeps, which are comprised of a series of stacked boxes containing slats upon which the bees build the hive known as a Langstroth beehive. He then provided an explanation of the process of preparing the boxes for the bees, and discussed the importance of the intricacies in the process, including slat spacing, hive cleanliness, hive airflow, queen bee placement, and timing for honey production. That discussion promptly led into an explanation of obtaining bees to start a hive, which requires ordering a group of bees by the pound and a queen bee to spur the group of bees to begin building a hive. The entire concept of ordering live bees by the pound seemed quirky to me, but Nathan’s explanation made it clear it was simply designed to make the process as easy as possible.

Once finished with his explanation of seeding a hive with bees, Nathan then moved to an explanation of hive expansion and the eventual addition of narrower boxes meant solely for honey production called supers. As the portion of the process I found most interesting, I listened carefully as Nathan guided us through the internal workings of the hive and strategies for encouraging honey production. Nathan informed us successful timing of Langstroth frame placement can cause a hive to grow from 5,000 bees to over 40,000 in one season. He stated his efforts this season alone produced more than 115 pounds of honey from the two hives in his backyard alone. I was staggered by the figures as we listened on. The fact that a group of such small animals could grow to such size and be so productive in a stack of boxes no more than six feet tall was almost unbelievable. For the first time in my life my stigmas about bees faded away and I felt a sort of respect for the insects and everything they do. It was strange, but it was enlightening.

A honey extractor
 After a few more tips, some information on the lifecycle of the bees, and a little more instruction, Nathan advised the group it was time to put on our beekeeping suits and take a look at the hive. In turn, Patrick and I excitedly located prepared for our first hands on experience with a beehive. We carefully donned our bright white suits, making sure each zipper was closed tight and that the position of the suit left no areas of open skin on our bodies. Eventually, our efforts paid off, and with all members of the group ready, Nathan walked us over to the beehives and prepared a smoker to guide the bees from the hive. As we approached the hives, I took note of the bee activity around each, which reflected the habits and behaviors Nathan had discussed earlier in the day. The bees were happily flying to and from the hive, defending the hive’s entrance, and greeting one another as they met. Although we were only feet away from the entrance to their home, they showed no interest in our presence. We weren’t interfering with them, and they didn’t want to interfere with us.

Of course, that changed when Nathan started opening up the hive to walk us through the process of checking hive health and collecting honey. As he cracked open the sticky lid on the top box of the hive, the bees initially remained rather still, but eventually took flight to investigate the parties responsible for disturbing their home. Much to my surprise, the bees didn’t swarm or fly into an aggressive flurry. Rather, some of them stayed put on the exposed slats of hive while others flew around the hive in wide sweeping paths. Those in flight periodically paused to assess the threat we posed and some landed calmly on our suits with no intention to sting.

This continued even as Nathan moved deeper into the hive, removing slats covered with hive and honey for display as he worked. In turn, the gathering of bees in the air continued to increase around us. Although there were literally thousands of bees creating a continuous buzz in the air around us, at no time did I feel uncomfortable in their presence. Despite the fact we were literally tearing the roof off of their home, the bees determined we weren’t worth exhausting their efforts on an all out defense. It turn, we casually looked at the features of their hive, checked honey production, and examined the stages of life in the hive. I was amazed as Nathan pointed out the features of the hive. The bright yellow, orange, and umber tones of the hive were beautiful, and the perfectly uniform structure of the hive was amazing. Needless to say, I could feel my knowledge of the animals growing with the experience. The bees were simply there to live and serve their queen, and they had absolutely no intentions of attacking unprovoked. The entire experience was incredible, and it made me realize how amazing and important bees truly are in our lives.

Lighting the smoker

The hive interior

A slat from the hive

Once we finished our assessment of the hive, Nathan stacked the Langstroth frames back in a vertical column before guiding us back toward the house. While the bees were still very active in the air around the hive, there actions as we moved away were astounding. Although each member of our group had dozens of bees resting on their suits when we were close to the hive, with each step we took toward the house the bees began peeling off of our bodies en masse, taking flight to maintain close proximity to their hive. By the time we were little more than 20 feet from the hive Nathan only had to brush a few bees from our suits before we removed them. To my surprise, no one in our group had been stung during our experience with the hive. Despite the fact we were piecing apart the hive for the better part of 30 minutes, every person in our group was unharmed. Sure, we had suits to prevent the stings, but I truly believe the bees could have found a place to sting us if they really wanted to do so. In our case, they didn’t. We were fine, and I had gained a new perspective on the honeybee.

A closeup of the bees

The beekeeping class!

With our beekeeping class winding down, Nathan invited us to taste some of the honey from the last two seasons before we left. Happy to oblige, the group gathered to taste some honey gathered throughout the spring and summer seasons, which offered a series of uniquely flavored honeys that reflected the time at which the bees produced it. The differences in the honey provided one last amazing insight from the day’s event, which provided the perfect way to cap off my first experience with beekeeping. With the knowledge and experience Nathan provided us today, I can honestly say keeping a beehive is something I would like to try someday. The insects are simply amazing, and the care and patience that goes into the art of beekeeping is something I think I would find to be a relaxing pastime. Of course, I’m not going to run out and order a few pounds of bees tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself revisiting this experience at some point in the future.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 139 - Holy Hill

I have never been to Holy Hill. This massive complex and basilica nestled in the hills of Southeastern Wisconsin has served as a center of faith and healing for Christians over the past 150 years. The structure's beauty, grandeur, and storied past actually resulted in the church being classified as a national historical place several decades ago. Given the location's reputation, famed architecture, and deep religious roots, I have always wanted to make a trip to Holy Hill, but I have never acted on that desire up to this point in my life. Given the underlying theme of my "I have never..." idea and my ongoing effort to gain new religious experiences throughout yearlong journey, I knew making a trip to Holy Hill was in order.

Fortunately, our annual plans to attend Octoberfest in Germantown this weekend put us a short distance away from the basilica, which provided the perfect opportunity to make my first trip to the religious site. As a result, Rachael and I followed through on my intentions to visit Holy Hill after enjoying some music, beer, and some wiener dog race (yes, that's a thing) victories from our dogs Buddy and Baxter this afternoon (thanks for watching them, Dan). Accompanied by Rachael's Sister in-law, Audra, Rachael's mother, Linda, and Linda's significant other, Neil, we traveled the short distance to the structure this evening, and I prepared for yet another memorable experience in my journey.

Traveling down backroads rolling through small towns and stretches of forest, Audra, Rachael, and I kept our eyes peeled for the first sight of the basilica with the crown of each new hill. Shortly after we left the Octoberfest grounds, Rachael indicated we would be approaching the complex in a matter of minutes given its close proximity to the Octoberfest grounds. Within moments of the words escaping her mouth, Rachael lifted her hand toward the horizon in front of us and continued, "There it is," she said in a matter of fact tone. In response, I pulled my eyes from the road and craned my neck forward to take in more of the countryside view. At first failing to find the site, my eyes eventually caught a glimpse of two massive towers reaching through the canopy of a distant forest. Although the structure was still several miles away, its appearance among the shifting colors of the autumn trees made the size and scope of the basilica apparent. "Wow, that is big," I said in response to the distant sight of the building. The obvious remark was met with silence from Rachael and Audra, who both adjusted their position to track the basilica as we passed through continued stretches of forest.

The view from the foot of the hill

Eventually, our path brought us to the foot of Holy Hill, which offered a awesome view of the basilica resting at the tallest peak for miles around us. The sight was powerful enough to bring our pace to a crawl and to swing our heads around as we drove toward the entrance to the property. I felt my excitement for the new experience building as we came to an asphalt road obviously leading up the hill upon which the structure was positioned. Following the direction of wooden signs lining the road, I turned the car onto the road, which led into a densely wooded area spotted with patches of yellow, orange, and red among the green backdrop. As we wound through the woods it was clear we were climbing an incline of some significance, which eventually led us to a series of parking lots nestled into the few flat areas we encountered in our ascension. Then, with one final turn up the steepest part of the road our eyes met the sight of the Basilica of the National Shire of Mary towering over us. While I knew the building would be large, the first sight of the building's height was something that caught me off guard. The structure was massive, and undeniably beautiful.

Upon arriving at the basilica we met up with Linda and Neil before beginning the climb up one of the building's two towers. As we made our way up the tower's narrow stairway, the structure revealed massive open arches and circles tucked into the tower's walls, leaving no barrier between the open air and the interior of the tower. Through the open spaces the elements made their presence known as we continued climbing toward the tower's peak. With each step we took, the wind whipped at our feet, whistling over the edges of the building and pouring into the brick chamber. In the distance, the breathy sound of rustling leaves could be heard emerging from the forest below. It was the only sound that accompanied the shuffling of our feet against the steps before us as we moved up the last stretch of stairs. Our effort inevitably led us to the top of the basilica's tower, which offered panoramic views of the sprawling terrain surrounding us hundreds of feet below.

The view from a tower window

After spending some time looking from the basilica tower, the cool air and fading sunlight made us decide it was time to find our way back to the ground. After making short work of the climb down the tower, we took a few minutes to take in the structure's lower chapel before finding our way back to the front of the building. After a brief conversation, we decided we would take a quick stop in the basilica's cathedral before beginning the trip back home. As we entered the building, it quickly became obvious the church was holding Saturday evening mass. Although a bit hesitant at first, we decided to enter the service when presented the opportunity, which ended up being one of the best decisions of the day. I was stunned when we walked into what is easily one of the most beautiful cathedral's I have encountered in my life. The interior of the building was lined with beautifully crafted walls constructed of varying types of stone. Elaborate stained glass windows gave way to a sweeping arched ceiling ringed with portraits, symbols, and gold borders. As we walked to find a place to sit, I couldn't take my eyes off of the intricate details composing the building's interior. Adding to the experience, the singing voices of the people softly filled the space and the smell of incense hung in the air surrounding us. The experience can only be described as powerful and breathtaking. At least, those words are the best I can think of to try to describe the way I felt in that moment.

We stayed for a significant portion of the church service before finding our way back out of the cathedral and preparing to wrap up our evening at Holy Hill. As the evening drew to a close and Rachael, Buddy, Baxter, and I began making the trip home, I looked back on my first experience at Holy Hill. In the brief time I had at the basilica, it was clear why so many people view it as a place of particular significance. Every aspect of the building radiated warmth and beauty, and the wonder created by the experiences in the basilica made it easy to feel a spiritual connection to the location. There are few moments and few places that can create feelings powerful enough to strike that deep, and I know enough to hold something when it is capable of creating such a feeling. Although it took me 30 years to make my first trip to Holy Hill, it is safe to say I will visit the basilica again when I find myself in the area. It is simply a special place, and that definitely makes it worth revisiting plenty in the future.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Day 138 - Going to the Symphony

I have never been to the symphony. As a music lover and musician, attending a performance of a live symphony has been something I have wanted to do for well more than half of my life. The complexity and beauty of the most exquisite instruments ever crafted coming together in one intricate arrangement of sound has simply appealed to me since I first took an interest in music. In fact, years ago I hoped I would one day have the knowledge and talent to write music for a full symphony of instruments, but I always knew it was likely I would have to settle for enjoying performances of works created by others with far more talent and expertise than I. Needless to say, classical music has always had a place in my heart, and seeing the symphony has been something on my “to-do” list for a very long time.

Given that is the case, I promised myself I would take time to see the symphony for the first time during my “I have never...” journey. In turn, I actively sought updates regarding the Madison Symphony Orchestra schedule of events and did my best to find a date that would permit me to attend a performance. As I started looking for potential dates during this fall and winter, I realized attending a weekend symphony performance may prove challenging in the face of my building schedule of “I have never...” events.

These efforts had occurred on and off throughout the course of the last five months, until a little more than a week ago I found myself sitting in my living room staring at an advertisement for the opening night of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. On a whim, I looked at Rachael and said, “Do you want to go to the symphony next Friday?” Confused by the random question, Rachael gave me an odd look before starting into my existing plans for the day. “Forget about those,” I said as I looked back at the advertisement, “Next Friday at 7:00 pm... If I pay for it, would you like to go?” Still uncertain about the haste in my remarks, Rachael responded with a slight degree of hesitation. “Sure... OK,” she said standing before me. I gave her a slight nod and a smile, made a few clicks, and bought tickets to the symphony no more than 30 seconds later. “Alright, it’s done,” I said with a hint of excitement in my voice. In response, Rachael smiled and shook her head before walking into the other room to continue the task I had interrupted with my off the cuff question. Although it meant I was interfering with the “I have never...” plans I had scheduled previously, I was going to the symphony, and I felt good about that fact.

Warming up
As a result of my sudden decision, I moved some of the events around in my “I have never...” calendar and prepared myself for what I knew would be an experience I would remember for some time. After working through a difficult week, my plans for the evening provided an excellent escape from my thoughts and a relaxing way to ease into the weekend. After getting cleaned up and throwing on my best suit this evening, Rachael and I made our way down to the Overture Center for the arts in Madison and settled in for the symphony performance. Our timing proved perfect as the symphony began warming up only a few minutes after we took our seats in the balcony. The sound of the instruments playing prolonged, swelling notes over the top of one another filled the theatre with a warm, brilliant feeling. The sound forced me forward in my seat and caused me to scan the orchestra fanned out below us as they made the final adjustments to their instruments. This continued until the conductor, John DeMain, appeared from stage left and made his way to the center of the stage.

Appalachian Spring Suite

My excitement began to build as the conductor offered a brief greeting to the first chair violinist and turned to the crowd. He waved to the applauding audience with a smile in gratitude for their welcome before climbing to the riser at the front of the stage and turning toward the orchestra. As he took his position, the conductor slowly raised his head and gently lifted his arms skyward. Then, with one drop of his arms the symphony began to play. At first subtle sounds of reed instruments and strings filled the air with the sounds of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. The light, airy movements of the work rolled over the crowd and reverberated through every inch of the theatre. From the very first moment of the piece I was captivated, locked in a state of awe at the beauty of the symphony’s collective sound. Even as the piece dramatically moved into a heightened state I remained fixated on the work of the group on the stage below. Their efforts were flawless as they moved through the syncopated and dramatic movements of Copland’s work, leaving me oblivious to anything other than the performance happening before me. We were less than a third of the way into the night’s performance and I was already hooked on the experience. In a matter of minutes it had already achieved everything I hoped it would be, and I knew there was plenty more to come.

Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde

With orchestra ultimately bringing the Appalachian Spring Suite to close, the audience moved into a full round of applause. In response the conductor bowed before the crowd and pointed out the key members of the first leg of the performance. Following a brief walk off stage and some minor changes to the orchestration, the symphony prepared for its second piece of the night, Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. In similar fashion to the first performance from the symphony, the conductor led the orchestra into the piece with a sudden gesture of his arms. The second work began slow and somber, with the strings serving as the focus of the movement as it fell heavy over the audience. Although the piece was slower and more prolonged in its movements than the first, it was beautiful and engaging in its presentation, which left me in a renewed state of awe at the wonderful sounds coming from the symphony below. I held my position forward in my seat as the symphony moved into emotional peaks and troughs of the work that served as its theme. The effort of the symphony was so impressive I found myself surprised at how quickly the over 17 minute long piece was over. It was clear I was lost in the work of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be in that moment.

Maestro DeMain doing his thing!
Following a brief intermission, Maestro John DeMain and the symphony returned to the stage once more. The conductor gave a brief introduction on behalf of the symphony before extending sincere thanks to the audience for supporting the symphony on its opening night, which happened to be his 20th opening night with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In response, the audience whipped into applause, which caused Maestro DeMain to take his position before the symphony and prepare for the third and final piece of the night, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite, Op. 35.  Unlike the works that came before it, the Symphonic Suite began with a swelling blast from the full symphony before moving into a quiet, subtle melody clearly rooted in forms of Eastern European music. The repeating melody in the piece provided the backbone for the entire suite of music and gave ample opportunity for the symphony’s most talented players to demonstrate their skills. With solos from the first chair violinist, the concert flutist, the bas clarinetist, and the bassoonist sprinkled throughout the piece, I was glued to the performance for the whole of the over 40 minute performance. The flawless work of the symphony let the Rimsky-Korsakov’s work tell its own story, and it was one worth hearing.

Taking a bow

With the conclusion of the Symphonic Suite, Op. 35, I immediately rose to my feet to applaud what was the most intricate and beautiful musical performance I had ever seen. The audience around me was quick to join in the enthusiastic accolades as the whole of them rose to give the symphony a standing ovation. The applause carried on for some time as the conductor and the symphony took their turns bowing to the cheering audience. Eventually, the applause began to wane after the conductor walked off stage and the symphony began to prepare to clear the stage. In turn, Rachael and I started working our way toward the entrance to the theatre.

As we walked toward the end of our row of seats, I kept my eyes on the diminishing symphony below. I couldn’t help but recap some of the most memorable solos from the final performance as we moved, doing my best to point out how and why certain members of the symphony stood out during the performance. Rachael happily placated me as I gushed, realizing how much my first experience at the symphony had meant to me. With that, I will say my first experience at the symphony was one of the things I know will stick with for a long time as a result of a few things. First, and most obviously, the timing of the event, the performances, and the amazing presentation set this experience aside in my mind. Second, having such an amazing experience with Rachael at my side provided me a powerful reminder of exactly how lucky I am in life. As a result, I know this night will stand out among the other experiences I have gained during this year, and I know I have found an event that will definitely recur in the years to come. I can’t say it any other way, this was a special night.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 137 - Attending the Wisconsin Science Festival

I have never been to a science festival. For those that are unfamiliar with the concept of a science festival, the events are basically a celebration and promotion of all things science that typically include demonstrations, interactive displays, and presentations about the role of science in our lives.  As a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States, opportunities to attend such an event have been very limited during my life. In fact, the first science festivals didn’t begin appearing in the United States until the end of the 1990s, and it wasn’t until recently statewide science festivals began organizing in areas throughout the country.

As someone interested in science and technology, I have wanted to attend a science festival since I first became aware of their existence some years ago. However, it wasn’t until recently that an opportunity to attend a science festival became possible in my area of the country. With the formation of the Wisconsin Science Festival over the past few years, I finally had a chance to experience a science festival for the first time. Luckily, the statewide science festival is largely centered on the University of Wisconsin in my hometown of Madison, which meant there was ample opportunity to experience a science festival for the first time during my “I have never...” year. As a result, I made plans to attend one of the science festival’s main presentations this evening at the local Institutes for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin campus, and I prepared for what I knew would be an insightful and educational experience


Although I was still feeling quite ill from the virus I caught a few days ago, I pulled myself together this evening and headed to the science festival with Rachael after the end of her workday. When we arrived at the Institutes for Discovery facility, we were a little disappointed to find many of the presentations and demonstrations from earlier in the day had already closed for the day. In response, we made our way to the presentation hall nearly 30 minutes early for the night’s presentation, “Smart is the New Sexy” with NPR’s Ira Flatow. To my surprise, nearly every seat in the hall was occupied when we entered the room. Caught off guard by the number of people already in attendance, Rachael and I paused near the room’s entrance and scanned the crowd for two open chairs. Realizing our vantage point wasn’t advancing our efforts, we began walking toward the back of the hall in search of open seats. Eventually, our path led us to two chairs off of the center aisle some five rows from the back of the room. Although it wasn’t an ideal position by any means, I was happy to have a place to sit for what was clearly going to be a busy event.

An insightful presentation from Bucky...
Over the next 20 minutes people continued streaming into the hall until the festival crew was forced to expand seating to the exterior of the room. Fortunately, the back wall of the room was revealed to be collapsible, which opened up the space and permitted dozens more people to be a part of the night’s event. With minutes left before the event was scheduled to begin, we watched as activity began to stir on the stage and final adjustments were made for the presentation. As an added bonus to the night’s event, Bucky Badger decided to stop by and lend a hand during the process, which made for some light humor before the main event commenced.

With everything in order and the crowd ready to soak up the experience, the main presentation began as scheduled this evening. Before Ira Flatow took the stage, Bassam Shakhashiri, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to the audience for a brief period. Although he was only designated to provide an introduction for Ira, Professor Shakhashiri did so in an instructive and entertaining fashion, which is a trademark of his science classes and presentations. During Professor Shakhashiri’s introduction, he focused on the importance of science in our everyday lives and the importance of making science a priority in society and individual education. As he stated, perspective and focus are essential to understanding the role of science in our lives and to maintain quality science education throughout our school systems. To reinforce his point, Professor Shakhashiri broke down the individual components of successful science education as represented by three beakers of clear fluids. As he mixed the fluids together in a larger beaker, he spoke about how typical components of science education are easy to overlook as important, but that when they are combined they can create some amazing results. With that remark he poured the last of the three fluids into the larger beaker, which caused the fluid to turn yellow briefly before rapidly being consumed by a veil of purple.

Professor Shakhashiri continued with his speech as the mixture stirred in the beaker on the stage. Drawing attention back to the importance of focus in understanding the importance of science education and making it a long-term success, the crowd focused on his words until a sudden change in chemical concoction snapped everyone’s eyes back to the beaker of fluid. Gasps projected from the crowd as we watched the purple fluid slowly transition back to its original yellow color momentarily before snapping back to a deep shade of purple seconds later. This pattern continued back and forth for some time as Professor Shakhashiri proceeded with his discussion of focus, acting as though he was oblivious to the dramatic, oscillating change of color in the beaker of chemicals on the stage. Eventually, he drew his eyes back to the beaker long enough to observe the change himself, which led him to his final point in the first part of his introduction. Professor Shakhashiri was concise in making his final point that the change in the chemicals was only known because of the focus the audience placed on the mixture continuously, and that science, like the mixture, drives curiosity and is only understood if such focus is a part of our society.

Following his initial demonstration, Professor Shakhashiri emphasized his point with one experiment involving a book containing a flame. His secondary demonstration was brief in comparison to the first, but it was equally mesmerizing and created an equally memorable message. With the lasting impact of Professor Shakhashiri’s message still resonating through the hall, he then moved to introduce Ira Flatow as the event’s main presenter. The announcement sent the crowd into a round of steady applause as Ira took the stage and began his “Smart is the New Sexy” presentation.

A book on fire!

Initially, Ira focused on the crumbling support for science in education and in the media, calling specific attention to the efforts of some groups to undermine proven science in education and to the recent elimination of science positions in the media. At first, I was worried Ira’s talk would focus exclusively on how to correct these trends, but I was happy to see his presentation promptly transition to focus on the rise of science in pop culture. It quickly became clear that the presentation intended to show the power and relevance of science in modern American culture despite efforts to undermine science in the formalized areas of our society. As Ira put it, “there is an obvious hunger for science in our society, and at a time when it is becoming more relevant and popular than ever before, the old forums for science and mathematics are turning away from the trends.”

Building on that theme, Ira called out specific examples of real science appearing in television comedies and dramas, in films, and across internet forums and social media. He provided obvious examples of the relevance of science in our modern world and was quick to point out the themes in independent science education crossing the nation. Specifically, he cited the science festival occurring around us and the dozens more that are occurring throughout the country during the same period. As he pointed out, the United States didn’t have a single large scale science festival 15 years ago, and now the nation boasts more than 20 annual statewide festivals that bring thousands of people together to learn and share knowledge in the field of science. As I listened, it was hard to refute anything Ira said in the face of the facts. There was no disputing science was in fashion and that Ira’s concept of “smart is the new sexy” likely held some merit in our society.

Ira Flatow

As Ira brought his presentation to a close, he encouraged everyone in the audience to seek and learn science and to embrace the role of science in our lives. He stated it was up to each individual to redefine our stereotypes of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to encompass the growing of people that are embracing the sciences in new, unfamiliar ways. Ira then asked the audience to make the most of the Wisconsin Science festival before drawing his presentation to a close. With that, Rachael and I took a few minutes to hang out in the hall before making our way toward the exit.

As we walked back to our car we talked about the insight and unique experiences that came with our first trip to a science festival. Although we hadn’t been able to experience the breadth of displays and demonstrations the festival had to offer, we quickly concluded presentation at tonight’s event was well worth making the time to attend. The perspective and knowledge gained from taking a few hours of our time to be among the sciences more than satisfied our curiosity and exposed us to some new experiences we likely wouldn’t have gained anywhere else. As a result, I can easily say I would make time to attend a science festival again. While some might be hesitant to believe it, the reality is Ira Flatow had it right. Science is constant part of our everyday life, and the benefits it brings to people have made science a growing part of our pop culture. The era of the nerd is upon us, and I, for one, will be happy to join the revolution.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 136 - Making an Heirloom Recipe

I have never made an heirloom recipe. While the act of doing so has been a task I have wanted to take on for some time, making an heirloom recipe is something I have consistently placed low on my list of priorities. It wasn’t that trying to replicate one of the many recipes handed down through my family wasn’t important to me, it was just that there always seemed to be something demanding my time that distracted me from completing the process. With so many amazing foods in my family’s heritage, my inaction on making an heirloom recipe only meant I was missing out on delicious food that carried with it a hint of nostalgia. As a result, I knew making an heirloom recipe for the first time was something I needed to make time for during my “I have never...” year.  I just didn’t know when I would make the time to do it.

That perspective changed with the recent passing of my Grandmother, who was known for a variety of dishes and desserts that stood out among an endless array of foods. As I did my best to prepare for her passing, I thought back to all of the holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations I spent with my Grandmother. In every memory of such events, my Grandmother always had a beautiful buffet of foods she hand crafted at the ready. She would literally put together appetizers and meals for dozens of people each time we gathered for an event, and the amazing thing is I could still taste each of the foods she made when the memories hit me. Her seasoned pretzels, caramel popcorn, grape salad, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, pumpkin tort, caramels, and any other number of foods always left people in a state of bliss. In fact, they were so good they were unforgettable, and the most amazing thing is she always threw these incredible banquets together with such ease it left us baffled at her skill and grace.

Given my Grandmother’s talent in the kitchen, I decided today was the perfect day to make an heirloom recipe. In my mind, doing so was a sort of way to remember my Grandmother and, in a way, was the first effort I could make at carrying her legacy forward. As a result, I started sifting through the variety of heirloom recipes my Mother had provided to me over the years and began narrowing in on a few I thought I could make in a way that would make my Grandmother proud. Eventually, this effort resulted in me landing on my Grandmother’s caramel recipe, which has actually carried through four generations in our family. As a relatively simple food to make and a food I remember looking forward to every time I visited my Grandmother as a child, it seemed the best choice for my first attempt at an heirloom recipe. Additionally, I have never attempted to make candy before, so the decision to try to make the caramels provided an added layer of relevance in my “I have never...” journey.

The stuff
With my plans to make my first heirloom recipe in order, I took time this evening to put together the ingredients I needed to make the caramels. Unfortunately, doing so proved a bit of a challenge given I had come down with a nasty virus over the period of the last day. As a result, I found myself in a persistent haze as I tried to put together the pieces of my Great Grandmother’s caramel recipe in a way that made sense and helped me develop a plan of attack for my cooking endeavor. Ultimately, those efforts proved somewhat successful, which gave me the sliver of confidence needed to dive into the recipe for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect from giving it a try, but I was going to give making my family’s heirloom caramels my best... I just hoped whatever came from it was edible.

As I began the process of making the caramels, I was very careful to double-check every step of the recipe before taking any action. As directed, I first added sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt to a pot and mixed the contents until it began to boil. Realizing temperature was everything in the process of making the caramels, I was quick to add a confectioner’s thermometer to the pot as I watched the mixture slowly began to bubble and roll over the stovetop flame. With periodic bursts of air turning to an endless churn of bubbles in the thick, clear liquid, I did my best to prepare the next phase of ingredients as quickly as I could. As I worked, my eyes remained fixed on the thermometer in preparation for a key temperature called for by the recipe, which my Mother had previously told me was essential to the texture and consistency of the caramels. If I was going to be successful in my first attempt at an heirloom recipe, I needed to be dead on the next phase in the process.

Step two at the ready

Eventually, the thermometer rose to the exact temperature I was looking for, which set me into motion adding the next ingredients called for by the recipe. After melting a stick of butter into the mixture, I blended the contents of the pot a pulled the temperature back to the level necessary to continue the rest of the recipe. Then, I slowly began adding two cups of cream to the pot, being careful to never let the mixture stop boiling in response to the cooled liquid. To my surprise, the process of adding the cream was taking a significant amount of time as the temperature of the liquid cooled in response to the cream and refused to climb higher once more. The process was so long I actually became a bit impatient at one point, which caused me to nearly stop the boil of the liquid twice. Considering the words “DO NOT STOP THE BOIL” appeared immediately after the line about gradually adding the cream, I decided I wouldn’t press my luck, and I prepared to take as long as I needed to ensure I complete the rest of the recipe as instructed.

Temperature check!

Over a period of about one hour I slowly added the cream until the last of the ingredient was in the pot. As directed, I then began stirring the pot rapidly as I waited for the mixture to reach the second critical temperature in the recipe. As before, I kept my eyes focused on the thermometer as my hand moved a wooden spoon in circles through the mixture, but there was little change in the heat of the mixture. Minutes passed as I continued stirring endlessly, waiting for some change in the temperature of the mixture. Unfortunately, such change did not come quickly, and I found myself stirring the pot to the extent that my arm began feeling fatigued from the consistent motion. I had no choice but to switch hands and keep stirring as I waited for the temperature to climb further. A few minutes became 15 minutes, which slowly drew into 30 minutes. Needless to say, in time it became obvious to me making my family’s heirloom caramels was a labor of love and one that required a lot of patience, both of which I welcomed given their reflection of the person my Grandmother was.

Patience... Just patience

My efforts ultimately paid off as my mixture of ingredients boiled down to a light caramel color and hit my desired temperature. In response, I pulled the mixture from the heat, added one last touch of vanilla, and gave the pot one final burst of mixing. Then, I quickly poured the contents of the pot into a pan to let the mixture cool into the soft, sweet caramels that had been a part of my life since birth. The familiar color and smell of the mixture as it spread across the base of the pan forced a smile onto my face as I looked over my work. The initial appearance of the caramel mixture made it appear I had been successful in my first attempt at the heirloom recipe, but I knew the true test would come in taking the first bite of the candy once the caramels had cooled.

The final ingredient

After several hours of waiting, I decided I would sample the caramel before I prepare for bed this evening. As I cut off a piece from the pan of golden brown caramel, I took note of the sticky strings of candy sticking to my knife. The sight was something I recalled from watching my Grandmother wrap the caramels in my younger days, which made me excited to taste the results of my efforts for the first time. As I bit into the caramel, I noticed the candy was slightly harder than I remembered my Grandmother’s caramel, but the smell and the taste were unmistakable. While the resistance of the candy was likely thrown off by a slip on the temperature of my mixture, I had nailed the ingredients exactly. By all accounts, my efforts produced my family’s heirloom caramels, which gave me something to smile about, even if I was under the weather.

Today’s experience making my first heirloom recipe is one I will likely never forget. The time and expertise required to make my family’s caramel caught me by surprise, and it gave me new perspective on the effort my Grandmother put in to make her grandchildren happy. Although the caramel recipe looked simple from the outside, it required real focus and a great deal of stamina to make it happen. What’s more amazing is that my Grandmother made batches and batches of this caramel (among any number of other things) every time we had a family gathering. If today’s experience showed me anything, it is that my Grandmother regularly took hours of time out of her day to make something that existed solely to give members of our family a fleeting, simple pleasure when we saw her. That alone says a lot about who she was and about where she put her heart. I’m just glad I was able to have some degree of success attempting to replicate her efforts to do just that. To me, it is a simple way I can honor and remember her for all that she was, an amazing, loving woman that lived solely to see others smile. I’ll miss her for the rest of my life, I know, but at least I now I have a little way I can recapture glimpses of some of my fondest moments with her. I just need some simple ingredients, a few hours of my time, and a little bit of heart to make it happen.