schnee!

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One of the promises I made to myself recently was to spend more time outside, more time on skis, more time exercising because it makes me feel good. I had sort of forgotten that for a while, or rationalized that I was “so busy” with starting my PhD that it was okay if I didn’t exercise for days on end…. then I wondered why I felt shitty.

On Saturday I gamely headed to the train station an hour before sunrise and hopped on a train for Graubunden. It was raining in Zurich. I got to Chur and switched to a bus. As we climbed up to Churwalden the rain turned to snow; I eventually got off in Valbella and headed into the Lenzerheide touring center. I’ve learned that in Switzerland, trails might not open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays. I guess the Swiss, with all their leisure and their money and their time, don’t start skiing at the crack of dawn like so many of the endurance junkies I know in the States. The kiosk was not open when I arrived at 8:30 so I didn’t buy a ticket: I just hit the trails.

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It had been snowing all night and was still snowing, so they weren’t exactly groomed. But it was really exciting to be back on skis for the first time since Christmas, and I had a great time tooling around for 2+ hours. It was slow going – I covered far fewer kilometers than the time would imply – but also totally beautiful. Unfortunately the connector trail from Valbella to the World Cup Cross Country trails and biathlon arena was closed, which was a bummer because I wanted to check out their biathlon stadium and see the course where Simi Hamilton won his first World Cup last season. Oh well, I’ll have to make another trip back.

As I was on the train home – hurrying to get back so I could meet my friend Lore at the train station as she arrived from Paris – I got a text from my friend Brook. He was taking a van full of high school skiers to Davos the next day. Did I want to come?

I thought for five minutes. I had planned to do work all day Sunday, and there was definitely a lot of work that needed to be done. But… a free ride to Davos… to ski… with a new friend…. yes, I was definitely going.

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Day two had all of the lovely snow, but it was no longer actually snowing and instead it was beautiful and sunny. I was tired from my snowstorm slog the day before, but I had a blast with the Zurich International School crew and it was the best snow conditions I’ve seen yet in Davos (I always seem to go there when there’s no snow).

By the end of our three hours skiing, I was completely exhausted. But when I collapsed into bed that night I did, indeed, feel very happy and satisfied. No matter what (and no matter if I’m out of shape and tired), skiing feels easy to me. My legs move in the right way, my core crunches. If I was running and I was the same amount tired, it would feel worse. Skiing I can rely on; skiing I can do. It’s nice to feel competent at something, especially as I start a new PhD where I often feel like I’m in completely over my head.

Cheers to more skiing!

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coping.

When I got back to Switzerland after Christmas, I arrived in a snow storm. It snowed for four days straight in Zurich, finally blanketing central Europe in the white stuff we so desperately needed.

Then it rained. All the snow melted overnight.

Finally, it got beautiful.

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I went hiking, from the Zugerberg to Wildspitz and then down to Sattel. I was in canton Zug, just to the southwest of Zurich proper. A 30 minute train ride took me to the city of Zug, where I started walking up. Once atop the Zugerberg, I had a long stretch of highlands to meander my way along before climbing – and here it got snowy – up to Gnipen and then Wildspitz, the highest point in the canton at about 5,100 feet.

It’s not a mountain, exactly. But it gives you great views of the other ones.

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I needed the time outside, the nearly six hours in nature, the scrambling focus of ascending a summit (Gnipen) with the last pitch so steep that it had bolted-in rope to hold onto – made more treacherous through slushy snow. Last week I got some very bad news. I learned that my friend J had died in a rock climbing accident in Mexico.

It was an immediate gut-punch. It’s so incomprehensible that something like this would happen to someone so wonderful, so generous, so young, so excited about life. Someone who was a careful outdoorsman. J was not one of my ten closest friends, or my 20 or even 30 closest friends. We had great times together, but he wasn’t excellent at staying in touch over e-mail. But he was such an amazing person that it hit me really hard – I can only imagine how much harder it is for the people who are his ten closest friends. For his parents. For his girlfriend, A.

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I can’t describe everything that made J special, or everything that made me sad, or everything about what I was thinking. I will say that I went to a comically Teutonic counselor; we did not connect. Walking in the woods helped me far more.

But two things I will say. First, thinking of J made me re-evaluate what I want from life. Both because in his own life he did what made him happy – surfing, climbing, outdoor trips, music, good food, good friends – while still being an excellent and hardworking scientist, and because, as always when faced with death, you think ‘what should I be doing in order to make this time count’? I realized that I spend a lot of time on things I don’t love. I do a lot of things that are less fun than being with the people I love. We all do. It’s inevitable. But I think I can prioritize and shift the balance. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? I haven’t been getting outside. I’ve been crossing things off the to-do list, the to-do list that gets longer and longer and never shorter. That’s no way to live. Do as J would do, and go to the beach and go surfing.

J had just finished his PhD. As I am just starting mine, it was a very odd notion. Is this ultimately futile?

But I’ll move on to number two. Talking to Günther, my co-worker from Davos where we met and worked with J, we seemed to have both come to a realization: our time in Davos was spectacular and unmatchable. Now we are both starting PhD’s. Neither of us is unhappy; we are thrilled to have amazing opportunities. I love my lab. I can’t imagine a better situation.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that, in all likelihood, never again will I have so much fun doing work as I did in Davos. It was as if we were going out every day, and the work just happened to get done – not that we were forced to go do it. It was a unique combination of things: the beautiful mountain surroundings, the fact that we were very good and very efficient at getting things done, our team’s camaraderie, energy, and love for adventure. The pizza and brownies we’d bring with us into the field. J’s fun and generous presence, when he was around. The fact that we were responsible for our work and could feel pride in it, but did not bear the ultimate responsibility in the end.

After finishing our PhD’s, we will be overqualified to have that feeling again. We’ll be the bosses. That will change things.

So many ideas, feelings, fragments swirl around in my head. I thought of J and how it happened a continent away from his family and best friends. I thought of myself in Europe. What am I doing? Why am I placing myself so far away from those I love the most?

At almost exactly this time, I saw a posting for two PhD positions, paid for four years, at the University of Vermont. Maybe I should just quit, I thought. I can go back to New England and start over. I can be surrounded by my community.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Of course, it gets better. I’ll stay. I love it here. Eventually, I will find my way back to North America, and I’m confident in that, and it’s fine. I had a really hard time when I first moved over here, as evidenced by a certain gloomy and desperate blog post. But I’m over that hump. I was moving cheerily onwards towards the Christmas break, and now things are really going: I start my first course this week, I’m working on my official PhD proposal, and I’m starting my first experiment.

Doing work! In the lab! It’s very basic but very exciting. The time of reading papers endlessly and feeling bewildered is over. (Instead, it’s doing many other things and knowing that still, actually, there are an infinite number of papers that you should be reading at this very moment, or rather, that you should have already read and be able to cite by heart, including not only the methods and results but the author names, year, and journal….)

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I will be okay. There are others who are hurting more than me. I will be there for them.

In the meantime, go hug someone you love. Or better yet, go to the mountains. With someone you love. Hug them there.

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