Friday, January 31, 2014

Day 264 - Eating Alligator


I have never eaten alligator. While trying a unique food for the first time would usually be reserved for a “Tasty Tuesday” in my “I have never...” year, I decided I would make an exception to that rule this evening to join my Sister, Sam, and her family for one of their family favorites, dinner at Crawfish Junction in Milford, Wisconsin. This decision was largely a result of two things. First, I have always been curious about alligator meat, and Crawfish Junction was the only restaurant in close proximity to my home that served the meal. Second, as unbelievable as it may seem, I have never simply gone out with my Sister and her family alone. Sure, we have eaten together at broader family events, but we never set aside time to simply meet up as brother and sister and spend some time together with her, my brother in-law, my niece, and my nephew. It was a fact I was somewhat ashamed to discover, and given my efforts to try to be more involved with my family as a part of my “I have never...” year, I wanted to make sure I made time for such an event. As a result, I cleared off some time in my calendar and made plans to join my Sister and her family this evening to tackle another new experience in my 365 day journey.

After wrapping up my workday today, I quickly headed home to pick up Rachael and start the trip to Milford Junction. Luckily, a break in the persistent winter weather that has been gripping our area made for a relatively short trip. As approached the restaurant I was surprised to find our path winding through largely vacant county highways with little sign of any centralized community. All initial appearance seemed to indicate we would find a sleepy, quiet location at the end of our journey, which made me briefly question the likelihood of the restaurant having the alligator meat I sought. Regardless, we pressed on knowing my Sister wouldn’t have recommended the location if it didn’t have something special to offer.

A Wisconsin kind of place...
Coming into the last bend of our journey, Rachael and I crossed over a river to find rows of cars occupying every open space along the road. Stunned by the sudden appearance of so many vehicles, we continued down the road slowly until our eyes caught the glow of a lively establishment tucked among a half of a dozen darkened buildings. A dimly lit wooden sign reading “Crawfish Junction” adorned the top of the location showing the only signs of life, which made it obvious all of the vehicles lining the road around us were there because of the restaurant. “Wow... Popular place, huh?” I said as we drove past the building in pursuit of a place to park. Rachael sat silent for a moment as she looked over the crowd of parked vehicles continuing down the edges of the road. “Yeah, this is crazy,” she said, breaking her silence as I turned the car back to make another pass.

Eventually, our second trip past Crawfish Junction resulted in us finding a parking spot very near the bridge that had led us to the location. Eager to get inside and learn what gave the location such broad appeal, Rachael and I promptly exited the car and found our way to the restaurant entrance. Once inside, we were greeted by a bustling, boisterous crowd of patrons occupying nearly every inch of space in the building. Chatter and laughter between sips from drinks and bites of food flowed freely from the people around us as we found our way through the crowd and toward the familiar sight of my Sister and her family. Stationed at a small bar near the back of the building, the group was quick to greet us when Rachael and I squeezed our way back to their location. At the sight of us my Sister leaned back on her stool with a beaming smile and yelled over the crowd, “Welcome to Crawfish Junction!” It was apparent from her remark the throngs of people around us were nothing new to her, but, to me, the mass of people that seemingly came from nowhere was absolutely stunning.

Here we go...
Our group made some light conversation as we waited for a table in the restaurant’s dining room to clear for our meal. Despite the substantial crowd, we found ourselves being guided to a table within minutes of our arrival. After winding through the quirky layout of the building and climbing some stairs to the dining room we quickly settled in at our table.  As we prepared for our evening meal we looked over the menu and chatted a bit about the unique variety of entrées offered by the restaurant. It had only been minutes into our time at Crawfish Junction, but it was already obvious the night would offer plenty of experiences worth remembering.

Our group was quick to place our orders after arriving at our table, which led us into conversation and storytelling about the happenings in our lives. Although I was excited about the forthcoming experience eating the alligator tail I had ordered just moments earlier, I was simply happy at the time I had to spend with my Sister and her family. The opportunity gave us plenty of time to get caught up on life events, to talk about my niece and nephew’s academic and athletic endeavors, and to have plenty of laughs about some of our recent experiences. Those moments made it easy to see that spending time with my Sister and her family was far too infrequent, but I was happy to be spending those moments in their company. It was fun, and it was warming, which made it easy to decide there was no better way to spend a Friday night.

Fried gator
After a brief wait our server returned with our food and set down a plate of golden, fried nuggets of meat in front of me. At first glance, the entrée appeared no different than any order of popcorn chicken I had ever seen, but as I split one of the pieces I took note of the segmented, somewhat pliable texture of the off-white meat. It was clear I was looking at something uncommon and previously unfamiliar in my life; alligator meat. Despite the foreign nature of the food in front of me, the usual deep-fried crispiness that encased the alligator meat made it easy to dive into the meal. After popping open the lid of a “zippy alligator sauce” that had accompanied the meal, I stabbed a piece of the meat with my fork and dropped it into my mouth. Amid the familiar, mouth-watering taste of fried food and unique blend of tastes rolled over my tongue. The alligator meat separated easily in my mouth, revealing a taste somewhere between chicken and rich turkey and a texture somewhat similar to steak. Stated plainly, the alligator meat was delicious and indulgent. It was better than I ever anticipated it would be which made it easy to take down the rest of the meal.


As we wrapped up our dinner, I looked down to my empty plate and leaned back in my chair. Full to the brim, I knew I had eaten more than I should have, but the alligator was so delicious I couldn’t convince myself to stop. Acknowledging my movements, Sam turned her head my direction and smiled. “What did you think?” she asked with a bright, inquisitive tone. “...So good,” I muttered looking across the table, “It was great. I never expected it to be so good.” My Brother-in-law chuckled a bit at my remark, “Well, there’s a reason we come here,” he said with a smile. Given my experience and Rachael’s empty plate, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Was it good? The plate says it all...

A short while later, we brought our evening at Crawfish junction to a close and headed for the door. After saying our goodbyes for the evening, Rachael and I headed to our car with my nephew, Micah, who was staying in Madison for the weekend. On our drive home, I thought about tonight’s experience with alligator and how it compared to other experiences in my “I have never...” year. While it was easy to classify alligator as one of my favorite new foods from my year of new experiences, I quickly realized the time Rachael and I spent with my Sister and her family was truly what made the evening a special and memorable event. Frankly, such an experience was long overdue, and there is a lot to be said about the joy that comes with spending a little quality time with loved ones. Tonight was a good night, and finding a tasty new food only played a small part in that outcome.


The dinner crew

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Day 263 - Taking a Painting Class/Vino and Van Gogh


I have never taken a painting class. Of course, I received some instruction on painting during the art classes taken as a part of my early education, but I have never received tips on technique, form, and canvas work from a professional artist. In fact, my experience with painting on a canvas has largely been limited to free, often undirected, application of paint on surfaces some years ago. In the rare occurrences such an opportunity to paint on canvas would present itself during the art classes of my youth, the work was generally broadly themed and freeform creativity was widely encouraged. As a result, I never had any sort of formal direction on painting techniques and design. I could mix paint and put in on a canvas, but my approach was anything but refined.

Given that reality, I decided early in my “I have never...” year that taking a formal painting class for the first time would likely be a valuable use of my time. As a result, I began researching a variety of options for painting classes in the Madison area. Eventually, this effort led me to a local painting instruction outfit, Vino and Van Gogh, which offers painting lessons in the style of Van Gogh while encouraging students to partake in a glass of wine during the course. Given the appeal of the concept, it didn’t take me long to commit to taking a Vino and Van Gogh class when the opportunity presented itself. In turn, I kept my eyes peeled for upcoming courses offered by the company and waited for the right opportunity to attend my first formal painting class.

The classroom

Eventually, that opportunity came with the announcement of a Starry Night themed class scheduled for this evening. After reserving a few spots a few months ago, Rachael and I made our way to tonight’s event at a restaurant conference room on Madison’s west side. As an experience I had looked forward to for some time, I entered the building and promptly found my way to our workspace in anticipation of the forthcoming class. In a space the size of a typical restaurant meeting area, two tables laden with rows of canvases and painting materials dominated the center of the room. Before them, a large easel and canvas sat facing the blocks of seating. The setup made it easy for me to track down some seats the offered a good viewing angle of the instructor’s canvas, which helped Rachael and I settle in and ready ourselves for the class with ease as we prepared for the night’s event to begin.

My workspace... Complete with wine

Our instructor, Katie

As the room filled up around us, our instructor Katie took to the front of the room and welcomed everyone in attendance. After confirming everyone was situated and had the materials necessary for the course, she transitioned straight into the class with a slight introduction and some almost immediate hands on instruction on how to start our painting. With a mix of some blue and green paint, Katie guided us through the first phases of creating our Starry Night inspired works. In a matter of moments we were dousing our canvases with a dark blend of evening shades, all the while being guided by Katie in the brush and stroke technique we needed to bring the backdrop of our paintings to life.

Laying the background

Once finished with the preliminary steps of our painting, Katie guided us into the finer details of creating a scene on the surface of our painting. Over the course of a little more than two hours, we layered our canvases with mountains, trees, buildings, and a night sky. With constant direction offered on our grip, brush angles, and stroke technique, Katie demonstrated each step in the process before giving us recommendations and guidance as we created our works. Although the pace of the class was a little rapid at times, the overall degree of instruction and feedback was incredibly beneficial in the process. By doing my best to follow Katie’s direction, I slowly saw a vibrant, balanced landscape come to life on my canvas. The result was a work far more beautiful than I ever anticipated I was capable of creating, and it came with much more ease than I ever would have expected.

Filling in the details on the foreground

Moving to the sky

As the class drew to a close, Rachael and I sipped at the wine glasses we had neglected in our focus on crafting our works. Excited by the prospect of our finished products, we placed our paintings at a distance in the room and chatted about the differences in color and detail that came from our unique interpretations of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Our conversation eventually drew Katie in and inspired her to offer her own perspective. “They are very different... Very unique... but I love them both,” Katie said as a bright smile crossed her face. The remark stirred delight in Rachael and I, forcing me to respond, “Yeah, you know, they are pretty good, aren’t they?” Katie affirmed my somewhat facetious response before returning to the other lingering students wrapping up their projects. With a final sip of my wine glass I gave my painting one last look and turned to Rachael, “Well, I would say that was a good experience... but I’m ready to call it a night.”

My "masterpiece"

In agreement, Rachael moved to gather her things as we prepared to head home. Tired from a full day of work and art, I found my way home and swiftly prepared myself for bed. As I turned off the lights around the first floor of my house, my eye caught a glimpse of my newly crafted painting one more time. The intensity of the color and the overall design immediately gave me an accomplished feeling about the work. “Not bad, Caleb... Not bad,” I said quietly as I moved toward the stairway and turned out the light. The moment made me realize my first painting class had been much more successful than I hoped it would be, which made me happy I had set aside time to finally gain the experience.

A little side by side

While I’m not sure I see painting as a new hobby anytime in the near future, tonight helped me uncover some of my potential that I didn’t know existed before this experience. Considering one of my goals for this year has been to discover more about myself, my decision to attend a class Vino and Van Gogh was definitely a worthwhile experience. That takeaway only proves there is still a lot out there to be discovered; even in some of the most simple and relatively commonplace experiences. I guess that is all the more reason to keep my eyes open and to stay focused on living my life to its fullest. There is a great big world out there, and I would be a fool not to heed its call.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Day 262 - Learning How to Express a Dog's Anal Gland


I have never expressed a dog’s anal gland. As someone that is overwhelmingly appalled by rear ends and everything they produce, expressing a dog’s anal gland is something I never wanted to attempt. In fact, when the process has been necessary for my two Dachshunds, Buddy and Baxter, I would almost always leave the veterinary examination room as to avoid the feeling of disgust that consumed me, and the periodic dry heaves that accompanied it, anytime I witnessed the process. Stated plainly, I found everything about the process to be absolutely gross, and I wanted to avoid having any part in its happening.

I'm so sorry, boys...

As a result of this perspective, I left the task up to our veterinarian and a veterinary technician friend to Rachael and me, Mary, anytime my dogs required the treatment. Unfortunately, a trait of the Dachshund breed meant monthly trips to have the procedure performed, and with a price tag of $30 with each trip to the veterinarian the cost started to add up. Of course, Mary was always willing to help us with the task when she could, but as a matter of inconvenience I always felt somewhat guilty about asking for her help. Knowing that was the case, Mary eventually offered to teach me how to express a dog’s anal gland as a part of my “I have never...” year. Although I was grateful for the offer to help me gain a new experience, I immediately dismissed the idea on the grounds that it would likely make me ill. I was open to trying new things, but as far as I was concerned there was no way I was getting my hands anywhere close to a dog’s backside. 

Despite my obvious aversion to the idea of learning how to express a dog’s anal gland, Mary and Rachael did their best to convince me to give the experience a try. Each time the procedure would be necessary Rachael would bring up the opportunity to learn any time I wanted to do so, and Mary would remind me of her outstanding offer each time she assisted with the process. As the months past, it became obvious such comments would persist until I ultimately caved and committed to learning how to express an anal gland. I wasn’t any keener on the idea, but I knew there was only one way to stop the recurring discussion of when I was going to give the procedure a try. In turn, as winter pressed into its third month I reluctantly agreed to take Mary up on her offer. After every crazy experience I had experienced over the previous eight months it was the most undesirable experience I had yet faced during my “I have never...” journey, but I was going to learn how to express a dog’s anal gland.

The tools of the trade


As to not cause anyone any degree of discomfort, I won’t go into the gritty details of tonight’s experience. Instead, I will start by saying the experience was everything a person would expect it to be; nerve wracking and absolutely repulsive. Leading up to the experience, I actually had a difficult time preparing for the lesson. After Mary arrived at our house this evening, she began to walk me through the process. As she did, my sympathy for my dogs and my fear I was going to do something wrong in the process caused me to slip into a state of uneasiness. With my palms sweaty I forced latex gloves onto my hands and listened on with a look of antipathy riddling my face as Mary nonchalantly explained the process. Everything in my mind told me I wasn’t ready to take on the task, but I knew I was moments away from facing it.

"Ew."

After a brief primer on the process, Mary instructed me to lift my dog, Buddy, up to the table we had prepared for the procedure. Following her step-by-step instruction I quickly found myself about to engage in the process of expressing an anal gland. As I engaged the procedure I closed my eyes tight and turned my head, doing my best to feel for the gland as Mary instructed me. “They will be at four and eight o’clock,” she said maintaining her calm demeanor, “Look for a marble sized bump, squeeze it until your fingers meet at the inside and outside of the skin, and roll them toward you.” As I tried my best to follow her direction, the instructions alone were enough to make my stomach turn.

Gross.

Doing my best to make it work...

Struggling to complete the task, I looked to Mary in a state of discomfort. “It’s not working,” I said with a whimper, “I don’t think I can keep doing this.” With that remark Mary offered to take over and demonstrate the process for me. She was quick to don a pair of gloves, take my place, and provide a play by play as she seamlessly completed the process in a matter of seconds. A bit queasy at the sight of the procedure, I took a few steps back as Mary cleaned up the pungent expulsed material with paper towel. “I just don’t know if I can do this,” I said walking to the side of the table. My remark evoked a series of encouraging comments from Mary and Rachael while I paced the kitchen floor wondering whether to continue. “It’s alright. Since Buddy is done you can give it a try on Baxter. He is much easier,” Mary said as Rachael put Buddy on the ground and set Baxter on the table. “I promise,” Mary said, “Just give it one more try.”

Round 2...

I sighed heavily at the thought of trying the process again, but I knew a second attempt was necessary if I was to complete my “I have never...” objective for the day. “Fine. Ok. I’ll try it one more time, but then I’m done,” I said moving quickly as to get the process over with as soon as possible. After replacing my gloves and preparing for my second attempt at expressing an anal gland, I once again followed Mary’s instructions as I worked through the process. As before, my attempt was at first unsuccessful, causing me to reel back from the table wincing. “You have it. Just give it one more shot,” Mary said bluntly. Slightly hesitant, I moved back to the table and worked through the process once more, but unlike my previous attempts my finger fell on a small round object that fit Mary’s prior description of the gland. In response, I moved my hand through the squeezing motion Mary had earlier described to me until I felt a sudden release. Looking down I noticed my attempt had been successful. I expressed a dog’s anal gland.

Success? ...Thank God that's over with.

Although I expected to be excited by my success, the disgusting smell of the excretion and the reality of the material on my gloved hand caused me to wince as I quickly moved to the garbage can. “This is so gross!” I exclaimed as I did my best to free my hands of anything related to the process. “That’s it! I’m done! I did it, and now I’m done.” My reaction caused a series of chuckles to escape from Mary and Rachael, but my comments were not intended to be humorous. I was absolutely disgusted by the experience, and I just wanted the experience to end.

Thankfully, a little clean up, getting Baxter back on the floor, and a good hand washing were the only things left in the process, which filled me with a sense of relief. Working through the final stages of the process, I quickly decided that my first experience expressing a dog’s anal gland would be my last. Given my experience and the overwhelming feelings of displeasure that came with it, spending $30 each month or treating Mary to a periodic meal are both well worth the investment to avoid having to take on the task alone. While I’m sure the task would get easier to handle with time and repetition, expressing dogs’ anal glands is not something I want to practice enough to become desensitized to the process. As a result, I’ll simply leave this one to the professionals and hope that I never find myself in circumstances where I have to express an anal gland ever again. At least I walked away with a new respect for the people that subject themselves to expressing animals’ anal glands every workday. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m sure glad they are there to take care of this nasty little task when my dogs need it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Day 261 - Eating Stomach


I have never eaten stomach. Like many of my “Tasty Tuesday” experiences with taboo foods over the course of my “I have never...” year, eating stomach is not something I ever intended to do. That stated, in my pursuit of learning more about different cultures and their cuisine, I knew I would be trying a lot of strange foods during the course of my year of new experiences. Although eating stomach was not on my initial list of such foods, I decided I would try pork stomach when I came across several dishes containing the organ while perusing the menu at a local Asian restaurant, Fugu, during my previous experience eating kidney.  As a result, I tracked down an open “Tasty Tuesday” in my “I have never...” calendar and set aside time to experience eating stomach for the very first time.


Ehhhhhh....
With the breadth of new experiences I have taken on as of late, the evening of my encounter with pork stomach came much faster than I anticipated. After making plans to meet my circus arts and unicycling friend, Cory, at Fugu for a meal this evening, Rachael and I headed down to the restaurant and settled in for the meal. As we waited for Cory to arrive, Rachael and I poured over the expanse of options available in the menu, doing our best to isolate the dish containing pork stomach that seemed most appealing. Eventually, that resulted in us determining the spicy pork stomach would likely offer the fullest and most tolerable experience with the food, which set up my new experience for the evening.

After waiting a bit for Cory to arrive, we ultimately placed our orders with our server. Given the theme for the evening, Rachael decided to be slightly adventurous with me by ordering an obscure octopus dish, and Cory followed suit by ordering pork hoot, a form of elbow meat, when he arrived at the restaurant. As planned, I stuck with my order of pork stomach and did my best to avoid any presumptuous thoughts as we waited for the food to arrive.

Well, here we go...
A little conversation about recent experiences and forthcoming events was enough to carry us through until our server returned with our dishes. As she set my plate of stomach down in front of me I was quick to cautiously look over the meal. The sight of the long, thin strands of stomach meat initially set me back in my seat. The pale brown pieces of organ were each lined with two layers of stomach interior, and their appearance made it obvious the food maintained a springy texture. Although nothing about the meal looked appealing, I knew I couldn’t let my visual assessment of the stomach deter me from my goal. As a result, I closed my eyes and worked through the now familiar process of preparing myself for the unknown.

After working through my remaining hesitation, I plunged my chopsticks into the dish and lifted a piece of stomach before my face. As the piece of organ hung before me it separated slightly, revealing a stringy binding material holding the layers of the stomach together. It was disturbing, but I couldn’t let it stop me from following through on my objective. Realizing it was time to act, took a deep breath and brought the chopsticks toward my face. With a hint of reluctance in my voice I muttered, “Well, here goes nothing,” before placing the stomach meat into my mouth. Almost immediately, a blend of spices and a savory, almost fatty, flavor rolled across my tongue. To my surprise, the texture of the pork stomach wasn’t as rubbery as it appeared, and the taste was more than tolerable. It was actually quite good.

Shocked... and disgusted

The first taste

As the meal progressed, I felt my aversion to the idea of eating stomach slowly waning with each tasty bite of my meal. While the feeling didn’t disappear entirely, the taste of the food was enough to overwhelm any lingering hesitation I had about the pork stomach. In turn, I picked away at my plate until I was feeling full. By the time our meal drew to a close, I had eaten more than half of my meal, which speaks to the taste and quality of pork stomach. After eating the meal, I can honestly say I understand why many cultures use pork stomach as the anchor to many dishes. It offers a unique variety of flavors I think many Americans would actually enjoy if we could work past our stigmas and picky eating habits. That is saying a lot considering the way I felt about the food leading up to tonight’s experience. I had assumptions that were completely wrong, and I was only able to figure that out by taking on the task of trying something new.

Finished

Tonight’s experience eating pork belly was a good reminder of the ways my judgment can lead to some baseless, and altogether incorrect, expectations about the unknown. Like several of my previous experiences trying new foods many would define as inedible, eating pork stomach proved to me there is plenty to be gained by breaking down our assumptions and trying something new. Sure, tonight’s experience was a simple meal prepared by a local restaurant, by the little lessons I can take away from experiences like the one I had tonight provide more than enough impetus to keep exploring the unknown. With a little more than 100 days left in my “I have never...” year, those small sources of motivation will go a long way in seeing this journey through, and that will only serve to make me a fuller, more cultivated person.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Day 260 - Walking Across Lake Mendota (Facing Winter)


I have never walked across Lake Mendota. For those that are unaware, Lake Mendota is the largest of the four lakes in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, which occupies a significant area of the city with its more than 15 square miles of surface area. Now, let me be clear in stating I never had any intention of walking across Lake Mendota, or any lake for that matter, as a part of my "I have never..." year. In fact, I'll be the first to admit the idea is more than a little stupid, and as someone that has a subtle fear of falling through ice, it was the last thing I wanted to do in my year of new experiences. Regardless, I found myself facing the challenge tonight as a result of a sudden change in my "I have never..." plans and as a result of my propensity to dig in my heels and be stubborn at the worst possible moments.

Tonight was supposed to be a routine evening in my "I have never..." year. I had a class scheduled for this evening, and I was looking forward to learning something new. However, our third bout of record-setting, "polar vortex" cold in as many weeks resulted in the class being canceled just one hour before it was scheduled to start. That occurrence left me scrambling to find another new experience that could fill the void and rescue my "I have never..." year as this evening set in. Unfortunately, every potential new experience I came across resulted in the same four word conclusion that had caused the issue in the first place, "Canceled due to weather." After nearly an hour of searching I met nothing but dead ends, and the only thing to blame was the bitter cold.

As a result, my frustrated mind began shifting focus to ways I could use the frigid weather to my advantage in my effort to gain a new experience. With the sun setting and the wind chill pushing past -25 degrees Fahrenheit, I started rifling through ways I could stand up to the cold and prove to myself its absolute control over the city, and over my "I have never..." year, was in some way restricted. While I don't blame anyone for looking out for the safety of all, I was over the idea of the cold could forcing me inside and uprooting my plans for another time this winter. Stated plainly, I was tired of winter owning me, and I wasn't going to let it go this time.

Bring it...
It wasn't until my eye caught a glimpse of Lake Mendota on my drive home this evening that I realized one of the best ways to face the conditions in their full force would be to traverse a wide open, snowy space like the lake during the peak of tonight's record setting cold. I knew if I made it to the center of Lake Mendota by foot I could face the onslaught of winter headlong and prove that it couldn't beat me, but I also acknowledged that walking to the center of the lake alone wouldn't offer much in the way of accomplishment. In turn, I decided I would walk across the lake through the bitterness and bluster of tonight, and I decided my path would take me across one of the widest portions of Lake Mendota.

Geared up!
With the potential of several new experiences at my feet, I knew I needed to act if I was to make the nearly four mile trek with enough time to get a decent night's sleep. As a result, I moved into action preparing for what would be the coldest outdoor experience of my life. Plotting a course from Tenney Park on the Mendota’s southeast shore to Governor Nelson State Park on the lake’s North shore. With a lot of uncertainty wracking me, and with the temperature plunging further with each passing minute, I geared up and prepared for a new experience unlike any to date. It was time to walk Lake Mendota, and I was doing it on the coldest night I have ever faced.

Before leaving my house tonight I did my best to quell Rachael’s worries and to reassure her I would be fine. Although I fully understood her concern, the closer I came to my departure the more I realized my walk across Lake Mendota was something I needed to do for myself. Every shred of reason in my mind told me it was a stupid idea, but my desire to face winter, and all of its harsh, bitter force, overwhelmed me. A reminder on the motto I have maintained during the course of my “I have never...” year was all I needed to push myself out into the cold. Reaching for the door handle I turned to Rachael and said frankly, “I told myself this year would be about going the places people don’t go, seeing the things people don’t see, discovering the experiences left undiscovered, and living without fear. As foolish as it might be, this covers every aspect of that motto, and something tells me I will be fine.” The remark did little to alter the distressed look on Rachael’s face. “I love you. Just know that I have to do this. It’s time for me to do this,” I said continuing. Reluctantly, Rachael nodded her head and rose to her feet to give me a single kiss. “It’s crazy, but if you need to do it, do it,” she said quietly, “Just keep your phone someplace close in case you need help.” I nodded my head in understanding and pulled Rachael in for an embrace, “I’ll be fine. This is just another part of my story.”

The eastern shore, Tenney Park
With that final remark, I grabbed the door handle and walked out into the night. Without hesitation, I immediately began my trek down the street toward the location I had designated as the starting point of my journey, Tenney Park. The vacant, silent streets around me made the walk short, which left me on the frozen shore of Lake Mendota much faster than I expected. Pausing to take one last look at the fading remnants of light wrapping the western horizon, I quietly spoke, “Well, this is it.” In response, the wind howled and punched me with a blast of intense cold. The force of the wind caused my head to turn momentarily, directing my eyes to the dim lights resting on the opposite shore. Knowing they were the guide to my path, I took a deep breath and walked forward onto Lake Mendota.

The view a few hundred yards out
Determined, I marched toward the opposite shore at a steady, rapid pace. Luckily, the punishing wind that had come with the most recent bout of arctic cold had all but swept the lake clear of snow, leaving only a dusting of precipitation clinging to the lake’s surface. The walkable surface meant I was able to make steady progress in the first 30 minutes of my journey, with periodic bursts of wind serving as the only force to slow my pace. Beneath a moonless sky I quickly found myself surrounded by darkness for hundreds of yards on any side until the void crashed into the twinkling lights lining the shores of the lake. The sight of the city wrapping around me was enough to stop me in my tracks so I could take in the city. As I stood on the bald surface of the lake, I looked at the place I call my home in a way I had never witnessed it before. The sight of the glowing city from the lake was almost unbelievable. All along the windswept skyline stacks of steam and smoke rose from the roofs of buildings and into the frigid air. Lights twinkled as wisps of snow blew through the air separating me from the shoreline. It was stark but magnificent. In that moment, I knew why I had taken on the task of walking across Lake Mendota. I was facing winter, and it was showing me all of its beauty.

Well, that's reassuring
Realizing I need to do my best to capture some semblance of the view with my camera, I removed my glove and started digging through my pocket. I immediately felt the cold air tighten up my knuckles and pull at my skin as I moved, but I was determined to document the moment. Seconds later, I turned on my camera and lifted it toward the distant skyline. In amazement, I watched as the battery meter dropped from full to empty over a period of only a few seconds. With the cold sapping all of the energy out of the device, I hurriedly snapped as many photos as possible until the camera screen went blank and the device’s lights slowly faded to dark. In less than 15 seconds the cold had claimed my camera. Although I still felt warm, that fact made the power of the brutal cold real, and it made me realize I needed to continue my trek as to not remain exposed to the elements any longer than necessary.

In hope I could breathe life back into my camera, I tucked it between my neck and my coat collar before continuing in my path across the lake. As I walked I started noticing distinct sounds between the peaks of the wind. Quiet creaks and groans periodically rolled into the air as I neared the center of the lake. At first the noises caused me some concern, but a recount of the persistent cold reminded me the ice beneath my feet was likely more than a foot think. As a result, it was easy to identify the sounds as the lake responding to the conditions on the surface. On the coldest night, the lake was talking, and, frankly, I didn’t mind the company.

About half way... and pressing on
Coming to terms with the noises occurring around me, I continued on my path toward the other side of the lake. Nearly 90 minutes after I left the shore of Tenney Park, I found myself approaching the middle of the lake. With the wind whipping and little light to guide me, I kept my head low and pressed forward until my eye caught something out of the ordinary. Running along the edge of an exposed swath of ice, a winding black line the width of my hand crept its way across the gap between blankets of snow. The sight caused my heart to skip and forced me to an abrupt stop.

“Shit. That can’t be...” I whispered to myself. Doing my best to get a better look at the anomaly in the surface of the ice, I snapped my hood free from the thin rim of ice that had formed between the fabric and my eyelashes and leaned forward to get a better look. Still unable to determine whether the line was a result of open water, I slowly lowered my body to the ice and lay on my stomach. Crawling forward slightly, I stretched my right arm out over the black line, formed a fist, and slammed my hand against the darkened space. The force landed on a solid, immovable surface, sending a dense thud into the air. Relieved at finding a solid area over the black line, I rolled to my back and looked at the stars. “Well, what now?” I asked as stared skyward. It was clear I could only turn back or continue on, but the idea of giving up didn’t sit well with me. As a result, I quickly decided I would continue forward, diverting my path along the black line until it permitted me to get back on my previous track toward the opposite shore. I knew it was risky and I knew it would take time, but I wasn’t going to let a frozen over crack in the ice stop me from achieving my objective.

Getting there
Rising to my feet, I quickly pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. With the device in hand, I promptly removed my glove and attempted to unlock the touch screen. To my surprise, the few seconds of exposure to the cold made the screen incapable of recognizing the heat from my finger. In response, I raised the phone to my face and forced a strong, extended breath onto it as I swiped my finger across the screen’s surface. Fortunately, the heat was enough to trigger the phone’s screen, permitting me to unlock it and check the time. 

Similar to my previous experience with my camera, I watched as the phone’s battery depleted from full to empty in the few seconds after I unlocked the screen. Moments later, it pulled up a random contact in my phone and began blinking randomly before the screen faded to an eerie gray in slow motion. With a single buzz the phone immediately shutdown, leaving me slightly panicked at the idea that my sole source of contact with the shore had been stolen by the cold. As a result, I promptly tucked the phone between my coat collar and my neck opposite my camera, hoping it too would come back to life with some heat. The reality of the situation settling in, I closed my eyes for a moment to think through my remaining trip and noticed a dull pain moving across the surface of my eyes in response to the heat from my eyelids. With the cold fighting me, I looked up to my destination and traced my altered path through the air. “Time to keep moving,” I muttered as I put my glove back on my hand and lifted my feet back into motion.

Looking back at my tracks...
The yellow and white lights are from Tenney Park
Over the next 15 minutes I made a large swooping path across the ice until the black line narrowed and disappeared into an ice heave sealed together with ice and snow. Stepping past the mound of frozen layers, I rechecked my path and drove forward toward a gap in the lights of Lake Mendota’s north shore. Figuring the darkness was likely the wilderness of Governor Nelson State Park, I heightened my pace until I noticed a change in the ice beneath my feet. The northeast portion of the ice was almost entirely free of snow, leaving a slick surface of ice covering the bulk of the frozen terrain. Stopping to gauge my best approach to navigating the pockets of exposed ice, I suddenly heard a noise pierce the air. Accompanying a slight tremor beneath my feet, a sound similar to an object striking a taut steel cable tore past me and rushed toward the picnic point peninsula on the southwest portion of the lake. A quick check of the space around me showed no change in the ice, but I remained cautious. Eventually settling on the idea that the noise was likely a result of hairline cracks forming in the ice, I closed my eyes and restarted my forward progress. The north shore of the lake was within sight, I just needed to keep my feet moving long enough to get there.

The west shore, Governor Nelson State Park
In my remaining moments on Lake Mendota I took my time to look back at my progress and squeezed enough power out of my camera to take a few more distant pictures. Accompanied by a few more tremors in the ice, my path eventually guided me to a boat landing obscured by snow and lit bit a sole overhead light. With a smile on my face, I dropped my feet back onto solid ground and climbed into Governor Nelson State Park. On a bitter night in -25 degree weather, I had conquered the nearly four mile hike across Lake Mendota, and for the most part I was no worse for wear. My Columbia omni-heat gear had kept me perfectly warm for the most part and my path had guided me safely across the desolate surface of Lake Mendota. With the exception of icy eyelashes and a little eye pain, I was fine. I had faced winter, and I had won.

After reaching the shore, I continued into Governor Nelson State Park where I forced enough battery life out of my phone to make a call to Rachael. Although I was confident I could have made the return journey across the lake without any harm, the late hour and a desire for a hot meal made me decide it was probably best to get a ride home. Eager to help me get home, Rachael was quick to pick me up along the road in Governor Nelson State Park and help me bring tonight’s “I have never...” experience to an end.

Looking at downtown from the shore

Made it!

Initially concerned about my well-being, I assured Rachael I was fine on the drive home, but in reality I was more than fine. My experience had left me filled with a sense of wonder and pride that has been infrequently matched during the course of my “I have never...” year. On a day when no one was supposed to face the cold, I took it on and walked away. I had proven to myself winter couldn’t own me, and I opened up entirely new possibilities for new experiences in my life, even among the most frigid temperatures. Looking out the car window on the ride home I thought back on my experience, recounting the emotions that had carried me across Mendota. From that, I realized that when I was standing on that barren lake looking on the distant light of the city, I was happy. I felt free. I was alone with the coldest forces of nature, and they showed me all of their beauty. To me, those are the moments, the stories, that make life whole, and experiences like tonight prove to me there is no reason to stop seeking them.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Day 259 - Riding a Unicycle


I have never ridden a unicycle. While this activity hasn’t necessarily been something high on my list of things to learn, I have always marveled at the skill required to ride a unicycle. In the fleeting moments I would encounter a person on a unicycle on television, riding down the street, or in live performances I would wonder about the balance and focus needed to make the small, one-wheeled device work. With limitless possibilities for ways to fall it seemed nearly impossible to me that people were able to maintain such poise and balance atop a single wheel in motion. It was uniquely incredible to me, and I figured if I ever had the time and the drive I would give riding a unicycle a try.

Considering my “I have never...” goals, I knew my goal of learning to ride a unicycle would be a good task to take on during my year of new experiences. As a result, I began looking around for potential opportunities to learn in and around my hometown of Madison. At first, this effort yielded little positive results until I met a man named Cory at new recent experience with a Circus Arts class. As one of my student partners, Cory and I spent a little time talking about my new experiences up that point, which inevitably led to the topic of riding a unicycle.

Goodman

“You know, I’ve been riding a unicycle for about five years,” Cory stated as a matter of fact. The unexpected statement caught me off guard for a moment, but I realized it offered me a terrific opportunity. As I prepared to ask him about the possibility of taking a lesson, Cory beat me to the chase. “If you want to learn, just let me know. I meet with a group, the Madison Unicyclists’ Club, twice a month and we would be happy to have you.” I immediately confirmed my interest, which set into motion a little bit of planning and the trading of some information. With that, I had my connection to learn how to ride a unicycle. All that was left to do was to set aside some time to join Cory at a Madison Unicyclists’ meeting and make my first attempt at riding a unicycle.


Eventually, that effort resulted in Cory and me making plans to meet this afternoon for the Madison Unicyclists’ annual kickoff meeting at the Goodman Community Center. Upon meeting Cory at the facility, Rachael and I chatted with him about some basic unicycle techniques as we prepared for the event. With roughly two hours to practice riding, Cory stated I would have plenty of time to practice my mount, balance, and steering techniques with hope I would be able to ride a short distance by the end of the event. Optimistic, I committed to giving it my best, which caused Cory to crack a smile and give me a little encouragement, “No, give it your all.” The remark was simple, but it was the push I needed to dive into the challenge headlong.


After getting a unicycle ready for me, Cory led me to one end of the practice space and directed me near a padded wall. He was quick to give me a primer on mounting the unicycle, finding my balance with the support of the wall until I was comfortable operating without it, and steering the unicycle with subtle leg movements. Although Cory made the task look simple and easy, my efforts to replicate his movements resulted in a lot of instability and tumbles to my feet. Determined to make the process work, I continued mounting the unicycle after each of my missteps, all the while being encouraged and cheered by Cory. Ultimately, Cory’s direction helped me find my position atop the unicycle with relative ease, which meant I was ready for the next phase of the task, trying to ride the unicycle with a little help from the wall.

Progress...

Cory stuck with me long enough to ensure I was capable of completing the steps necessary to mount the unicycle, control my position along the wall, and begin a slow forward movement consistently before taking to his unicycle and riding around my area. Calling directions and pointers as he rode, Cory helped me focus broadly on my technique, which advanced my slow progression with the skill as the afternoon pressed on. Although I expected the activity to require incredible balance and focus, staying on the unicycle was far more challenging than I ever expected. The task required me to forget everything I had learned about riding a bike, firmly plant my weight at the center of the unicycle, and maintain balance on a golf ball sized area of the unicycle tire. With gravity attempting to pull me down in any possible direction, I attempted to pedal down the wall with as little support as possible. Each pass ultimately resulted in me taking a tumble, but I increased my distance down the wall with each new attempt. I was making progress, but the challenge was wearing me down. Without question, riding a unicycle was far more difficult than I ever expected it would be.


Nearly 90 minutes into my attempt to ride a unicycle I found myself sweaty and fatigued. That reality made me question whether I would be able to successfully complete my intended new experience for the day, casting doubt over my desire to continue. Remaining committed to my progress, Cory provided me some more encouragement and advice in an effort to spur me back to action. “Everything is looking good. I think you just have to go for it. Use the wall, gather some momentum, and go all out,” he said. The perspective caused me to look down the length of the wall before and glancing up at Rachael and Cory. “That’s what this year is all about, right?” I asked, wiping the sweat from my head. Cory responded with a smile, “It is. Just go for it, man.”

A little help from a club member

The words steeled my resolve to press on and make good on my intentions of riding a unicycle unassisted by the time the event was over. As a result, I lined myself up along the wall, climbed atop the unicycle, and lined up to begin another attempt. Once balanced in the seat, I pushed the pedals down and leaned forward. As I began moving I felt the tips of my fingers leave the wall and return in segments of unsupported, free movement. Although I was certainly wobbly, the realization I was close to riding a unicycle for the first time caused me to refocus and bear down. With a flex of my thigh I turned the unicycle away from the wall and out toward the open floor. I pedaled once more, continuing my forward movement with nothing but my outstretched arms keeping me in balance. Still upright I gave two quick kicks with my feet, sending me five feet forward in my path and leaving behind any chance of returning to the wall. I was officially riding a unicycle; at least for a moment.



A split second after my third unassisted pedal I felt my weight shift, sending the unicycle into a rocking motion that left me falling to my feet. Finding my balance, I immediately turned to the felled unicycle and smiled. My ride was only a few moments in time, but my success overwhelmed me. Throwing my hands into the air, I bellowed over the crowd of people riding around the practice space, “Yes!” My comment caused a few people to turn in confusion, but Cory and Rachael immediately knew the significance of the moment. Returning to their location, I grinned. “There it is. I might not be riding around the place like a bat out of hell, but I rode a unicycle.” My remark elicited a few responses of congratulations from the Cory and Rachael before Cory summed up his thoughts simply, “I knew you could do it.”

Following my brief success I took a few minutes to rest before returning to the unicycle and the wall for a few more attempts. For the rest of the event I continued to press myself in an effort to continue my progress, but by the time the practice drew to a close I had peaked at a few feet of unassisted riding during my best rides. It was less than I had hoped to achieve during my first attempt at riding a unicycle, but I was filled with an ample feeling of accomplishment given the unexpected degree of difficulty the task required. As Cory, Rachael, and I left the community center we chatted briefly about the experience. After I recapped my successes and challenges, Cory looked at me and gave me one last thought to consider. “You made more progress in your first day than anyone I have seen before. Feel good about that. Not many people would have the drive to stick it out, but you did.” The remark was all I needed to know today’s “I have never...” experience was a success. I walked away with new knowledge that riding a unicycle is a challenge, with new respect for people that have mastered the skill, and with five foot track of freedom on one wheel to revel in. It might not have been what I hoped to achieve during today’s “I have never...” experience, but in my opinion, anything that results in those takeaways can only be defined as a good experience.