Friday, August 27, 2004

Get Me Morley Safer on the Line!

By Wednesday, RA training had slowed to the point that they were giving us a few hours off per day. After lunch I decided to buy a parking pass and my textbooks.

Let me start with the parking pass. First, this is Wyoming, the least populous and most sparsely populated state in the lower 48. In case you've never been here, the entire state could easily be a parking lot. Seriously, there's a lot of room here. Hell, that's partly why I came back (but also because of the people. Wyoming has a dearth of pretentious hipster fuckwads, except in Jackson Hole, where I guarantee 95% of the people driving SUVs wouldn't know how to engage the 4wd system if their life depended on it... which is why I hope that someday it will).

But back to the parking pass.

The University of Wyoming recently removed parking enforcement duties from the cops and created its own little parking department. Now, I don't know a whole lot about bureaucracies, but I do know this: if you give a small group of people a high degree of power, they're going to abuse it. Show me someone who's in charge of parking somewhere, and I'll show you a cold, cold heart.

So parking for one calendar year is $90. I realize that for some of you that barely covers a fiscal quarter's worth of lattes, but that's a hell of a lot of money for UW students. I just didn't enjoy writing that check.

Then I went to the bookstore.

Okay, okay, everyone already knows college textbooks are notoriously overpriced, and griping about the buyback racket, though fun, is a very tired joke.

But for three English Literature classes, a "teaching with microcomputers" class, and a "human and lifespan development class," I dropped $521.

Thank you sir, may I have another.

Picking Up the Noodle, Part III

Sunday morning I woke up intending to review my finances and ensure I had enough money for the upcoming school year. In case you haven't guessed, I'm just not good at personal finance stuff. I never have been. Add to that an occasionally problematic spending compulsion, and you've got a recipe for one fucked up financial situation. I keep it mostly under control, but Sunday was going to be a tune-up; the first really thorough one I've done since moving here.

I have two checking accounts: one left over from Edwardsville, and one I opened here in Laramie. My summer job paid room and board and an hourly rate (not much of an hourly rate, but who's whining). Now, I vaguely remember telling the bank employee that I'd be employed by UW. I also vaguely remember her telling me that for UW employees, the bank had a special direct deposit thing set up. I remember these things now. I didn't remember these things Sunday morning.

So Sunday morning, I started looking for my most recent paycheck. Couldn't find it. Tore the room apart; couldn't find it. I remembered seeing it over at Downey Hall when I worked a desk shift there, but I couldn't find that fucker for the life of me. Losing a paycheck is right up there with driving the wrong way on a one-way street and putting your shirt on backwards in my book: only idiots do it. Because only idiots do it, I'm allowed to call myself names when I do it myself.

People who write tend to be really good at berating themselves. You call yourself amazing names you'd never dream of calling others.

So I'd lost a paycheck, which sent me into a highly articulate self-loathing rage. RA training has been pretty exhausting if not overwhelming. My printer has been fucked for weeks, which meant buying a new one, which meant spending money. I was dreading buying books (for good reason, as you'll soon see), because that meant spending more money. My fellow RA and I had yet to finish "door decorations," which amount to nothing more than a resident's name creatively attached to their door. Then again, we're on an all male floor, so really we were only decorating for their mothers. But I digress.

Long story short, things just weren't going my way. On top of that, I was feeling pressure to let people know how I was doing. And really, when you ask someone how they're doing, most of the time you don't really want to know. Sunday's post, as depressing as it sounded, was nothing more than the truth.

Sorry if it scared anyone.

The paycheck was direct-deposited, and the pay stub showed up in the mail Monday. I'm still stressed as hell about this semester and all the little things that have gone, could go, or are going wrong, but mostly things are back under control. Consider the noodle picked up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Picking Up the Noodle, Part II

I'm not a huge fan of anthropomorphism, but I swear to god that fucking high ropes course was laughing at me the whole time I was on the ground.

Eventually we strapped on the high ropes harness. So that no one in the Readership freaks out (Mom), OF COURSE the exercises were safe. The harness attached to a safety strap via a carabiner, which in turn locked onto a safety wire strung 10 feet above the exercise. Basically, if you lost balance on the one of the exercises, the furthest you'd fall was about a foot. Granted, you'd be dangling 30 feet up, but I suppose that beats plummeting.

A note here about the harness. It had two leg loops you stepped through, and then a larger waist loop. Once you tightened it up, you had a very secure and wide belt, and you pulled the leg straps as high on your thighs as possible. The result was a significant bulge in the crotch, and in any other context it would have looked obscene. As Deb said, "Guys, I'm told you should try to keep all the furniture in the same room for maximum comfort."

Thanks, Deb. We had that.

So you clip a rope into a loop on the front of your harness. The rope is attached to a pulley at the top of the first platform 30 feet up, and the other end of the rope extends all the way back down to the ground, where Deb clips into it. This is called "belaying." It basically ensures that if some yutz who's scared shitless of heights falls off while climbing to the platform, that yutz doesn't die. The "ladder" itself is constructed exactly like a telephone pole. If you've never noticed, most telephone poles have spikes sticking out of them spaced roughly 2 feet apart on alternating sides.

Once many other folks had gone before me and not fallen to their deaths, I clipped into the belay rope. "On red," I announced, per the rules. You call out the color of the carabiner so that Deb knows what the hell you're doing. Each exercise (we did a total of five) has its own independent safety wire, which means you have to change safety straps while in the air. When you're done with one exercise you clip into the next one BEFORE removing the carabiner from the previous exercise. The carabiners are colored red and green alternately precisely so that you know which one to clip on and the off.

Seems simple on the ground. Gets complicated 30 feet up.

"Okay. On red," Deb said.
"Red on," I said.
"Squeeze check," Deb said. You squeeze the carabiner to ensure it's locked into place and can therefore handle your weight when you need it to. I would. Often.
I squeezed. It was locked and I said so.
"Free to climb," Deb said.
"Tell my parents I love them," I said, and started climbing.

At 30 feet above the ground, I walked a tightrope with rope swings dangling at five foot intervals; balanced on a 20 foot long horizontal pole; navigated some crazy-ass thing called a pirate's walk; made it across a "Burma bridge", and lived through a torturous horizontal rope ladder thingy.

Technically, I completed the ropes course. I think I probably lost some style points, though. Imagine the most bipedal drunk you've ever seen: still mobile but certainly having trouble with balance. Now imagine my face on that body 30 feet above the ground on a ropes course. Now imagine me clinging to a safety strap at the same time, sweating profusely, and wondering aloud just why in the hell I came back to college. You now have a rough idea of just what exactly I looked like up there.

Getting down was perhaps the most interesting event of the day. Once you completed the exercises, you wound up back at the original platform. From the other side of that platform, they hoisted two wires connected like a V with a carabiner attached to the point. The single ends attached to a crosswire 50 feet up and about 20 feet out. The point of the V attached to, well, you. Once you were clipped in, they counted down and then you stepped off the platform to swing like a playground daredevil's dream.

We lived near a creek when I was growing up. One summer day I was exploring alone and almost stepped on a gigantic orange snake. I turned around to get the righteous fuck out of there and was confronted by another snake. I jumped over it and saw at least three more squirming near the path I'd just come down. I ran all the way home, and I never went back to that spot in the 5 years after it happened and before we moved.

I still dream about that sometimes, and the feeling I got from seeing all those snakes is the same feeling I got when I stepped off the platform.

It's not terror, exactly. Terror is 100% bad. This sensation is lightness at the top and back of my head, and a cooling of the spine. Adrenaline usually kicks in a few seconds later, but for those few seconds the abject horror is replaced by, well, relief.

After the first passes were over I opened my eyes. I remember making a highly inappropriate comment about wishing I'd shorn my nutsack that morning as I swung back and forth. Though I'd been putting significant weight on the harness throughout the course, I hadn't put my full body weight on it. Swinging forced all my body weight onto the harness, which in turn squeezed the aforementioned part of my anatomy. We won't go any further. I think you get the idea.

And that was that. We all went out to lunch in Fort Collins and drove back to Laramie. I haven't laughed as hard or as long as I did during that drive. Some of the people I work with are literally the funniest people I've ever met. Even when they're cutting on me about my age, or when I try to explain why exactly you should always document every negative interaction you have with a resident, I'm feeling more and more like I'm fitting in.

So it's strange to me that Saturday's highs didn't last, and that Sunday morning started off so badly and only got worse. Or maybe "strange" isn't the right word. The more I think about this, the more I understand: Saturday was a much needed stress relief, and Sunday was entirely (well, not entirely, but mostly) about money. More to come.

Picking Up the Noodle, Part I

Last Monday, 8/15, I started RA training. Resident Assistants, for those who don't know, are students living in the dorms who act as mentors, cops, babysitters, tour guides, cruise directors, interior decorators, drill sergeants, older siblings, coaches, teachers, medics, therapists, matchmakers, and last but not least, sex-ed instructors.

RA training has included at least 30 minutes, often hours, of lectures from professionals in many different fields. This is good: the University of Wyoming recognizes the significant role RA's play in the lives of residents. It could certainly be worse, and the skeptic in me thinks it would be worse, except that UW also recognizes that they're perpetually one poorly trained staff member away from a lawsuit.

So we've had lots of training, often over 14 hours a day when decorating is taken into account. Some of it's been painfully boring; mostly it's been important and I'll be a better RA for it.

The highlight so far was definitely Saturday, when each staff did its own "teambuilding" exercise. Now, when I hear words like "teambuilding," I think of cheery camp counselors forcing people to do trustfalls (yes, you do know what a trustfall is. It's where one person falls backwards into a group of "friends" who've clasped hands to catch them). I hate trustfalls. Trustfalls are for church camps and kids with no self-esteem. Trustfalls are for sissies.

And when I learned what Orr Hall would be doing for its teambuilding, trustfalls sounded like a really great alternative.

The White Hall staff went to a water park in Denver. The poor suckers in Hill and Crane Halls got to – yippee! – go to Washington Park here in Laramie for a picnic. Not sure what Downey Hall did.

Orr Hall? Yeah, we went to a high ropes course in Ft. Collins.

For the unfamiliar, a high ropes course looks roughly like a very high, very treacherous jungle gym. Some genius decided it would be a great idea to poke a couple of telephone poles into the ground, wrap some twine around each pole 30 feet up, and then – ha! – have people balance on the twine. Or on a log. Or better yet... a rope bridge!

We didn't even start the high stuff until after two hours of ground-based teambuilding stuff. Some of it was hokey; some of it was truly impressive: at one point we had to scale a 10 ft. wall using only each other.

One of the exercises involved each of us standing a 3 ft. styrofoam noodle on its end, and standing in a circle facing the same way. Keeping the thing balanced with only our index finger, we'd count to three, take a step forward, and try to catch the next noodle with only our index finger before it fell over. So you'd have to ensure you let go of your noodle in a responsible manner but also make sure you caught the next person's noodle. We started in a tight circle and eventually got to the point where we had to take huge steps to make the catch. Obviously, we didn't always catch it.

After each exercise we'd talk about what we'd learned. I was astonished, and you would be too, at the depth and breadth of insight a group of people can gleam from a styrofoam noodle. Deb, the course instructor, asked us what we learned and someone said, "Sometimes you're going to drop your noodle, but life goes on once you pick it up."

Standing there with my peers somewhere on the CSU campus, nothing had ever made more sense.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

So Many Problems, So Little Space

Expletives cannot possibly do justice to the amount of crap going wrong in my life right now. Maybe I'll write about it later. Maybe I won't. So mostly this post is just to let everyone know that, at the very least, I'm still breathing.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

3.4 miles, my ass!

Yesterday a coworker and I hiked to Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in the Snowy Range (the mountains due west of Laramie). Our intrepid National Forest Service claims the trail is 3.4 miles from the parking lot by Mirror Lake to the peak itself, so according to them a round trip checks in at just shy of 7 miles. I'm no geographer, and I've never done any kind of survey work, but I'm here to tell you that trail is longer than 3.4 miles. Much longer.

Or maybe the switchbacks made it seem longer. Or perhaps it was the small rocks that played havoc with your footing along the "first" and "third" mile of the hike. For all I know, my oxygen-starved brain simply lost its ability to accurately judge distance.

No matter. We made it to the peak. It was worth it.

Medicine Bow Peak looks remarkably like a smooth eastward-facing ridge, an appearance that doesn't change whether you're viewing it while plummeting west through the I-80 pass into Laramie, 30 miles away, or from the base of the mountain itself. In the summertime the whole ridge, a total of maybe 2 miles wide, looks ash gray. Sometimes, like this summer, snowfields are visible even from town; according to locals the snow usually completely melts away by August.

It's not until you actually try to climb the bastard that you realize just how rocky it is.

Like I said, the trail starts at a parking lot at (I'm guessing) 10,000 feet. The peak is at 12,013 feet, and (I'm guessing again) at least 50% of the elevation is gained in the first mile or so of the trail. It winds through a stand of evergreens, makes several switchbacks through high prairie grass, and soon encounters the first of many rock fields.

The first mile basically scales an eastern face on the southern "end" of the ridge. After the first mile and 1000 ft. of elevation, the trail takes an abrupt left; instead of going along the ridgeline in a direct south-north path along the other peaks on the way to Medicine Bow, the trail meanders through a high rocky prairie behind the ridgeline. The middle mile is therefore the easiest: not very steep, good purchase, and a spectacular view.

But the "middle mile" is also the most suspicious. I think it's more like two miles from the end of the first section of the hike to the beginning of the last section; as marked, the "ascent" is .9 miles. The first section is about a mile, and remember that a one-way trip is 3.4 miles. That leaves 1.5 miles for the middle section. That's the longest damn mile and a half on the planet.

It does end, but only after playing bait-and-switch with your pride. At several points in the middle mile a rocky peak will loom in front and to the right of the trail. "That's gotta be it," you tell yourself. "Okay. That's the one," you say after passing by the previous peak and seeing another one. "Jesus, tell me this is it," you wheeze when you see the next one. This happens at least five times as you proceed north behind the ridgeline. The kicker is that you never actually see Medicine Bow Peak until you're about 100 yards from it.

With just under a mile to go, a sign directs you east, uphill. It's a brutal .9 miles: steep, rocky, and windy. Finally, after circumventing yet another couple of peaks, you see what has to be Medicine Bow Peak: the trail climbs through Volkswagen-sized boulders to what is obviously the highest point on the ridge. It's not what I'd imagined: instead of a huge slab of granite with a terrifying cliff, it's a gigantic boulder field with a steep (but certainly not terrifying) eastward dropoff.

And the view is spectacular. Since the ridge faces east, that's where your eyes are naturally drawn at first. Laramie is a smudge. Northeast of Laramie, Laramie Peak is clearly visible 60 miles away. To the south, the Colorado Rockies jut into the skyline; I'm sure some of the "Fourteeners" are visible but I couldn't name them for the life of me. The entire southwest horizon is composed of the Rockies. Due west, more mountains dominate the south half of the view, giving way to southern Wyoming's notorious high desert in the north half. Directly north, Elk Mountain looks just huge. The Ferris Mountains are a pale ridge way off to the northwest.

It took us two hours flat going up; it took 1.5 hours coming back. J and I sat on my tailgate drinking water and listening to the tourists' accents. We both got cooked pretty well by the UV rays at 12,000 ft. Today I'm still a little dehydrated... but I climbed that hill. Not everyone can say that.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Hablo espanol avec un French accent.

We took our last chapter exam in Spanish yesterday; I did very, very poorly: 78. The good news is that if attendance is perfect, our professor drops the lowest test score... so my test average is actually a respectable 94. This afternoon we're watching a film; tomorrow morning we review in preparation for the final; tomorrow afternoon is free; and Friday morning we take the final. If I've calculated it correctly, I have to score a 60% or better to get an A in the class. No sweat.

My professor says I speak Spanish with a French accent; it's especially noticeable with my "e" pronunciations. I guess those 4 years of high school French weren't a complete waste after all. I can't remember verb endings for the life of me, but seemingly random French nouns or verbs will burst into my head during Spanish class. It's almost like there's a grungy little Frenchman with Tourrette's Syndrome roaming around my subconcious.

"Travailler!" the frog yells, when my Spanish professor asks "Que haras este tarde?"

"Je ne parle pas le espaniol!" the frog yells, when my Spanish professor asks "Comprendes?"

"Tres bien, merci!" the frog yells, when my Spanish professor asks "Como estas?"