spring resolutions.

Next winter I want more of this... and only like half as much racing.

Next winter I want more of this… and only like half as much racing.

Some people make resolutions at New Years. But I’m never very successful at keeping them.

This year I had a revelation: for me the calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but when the ski season ends and a new year begins. We’ve all kept track of it this way in our training logs for years and years, but I had never explicitly thought of it seeping into the rest of my life.

After all, semester schedules still go on. Grant cycles don’t depend on the seasons.

But emotionally, the end of the season is the time for me take stock of what happened in the last year, set goals, and decide what I want to do better – how to manage my time through the whole year, culminating in winter.

When I got back from World Championships, I started making resolutions. The first one: next year I’m not going to race as much. I’m going to enjoy skiing for skiing’s sake a bit more, and take some weekends where I just get out on the trails with no bib on.

This winter racing really did take up a lot of mental space, even though I tried to keep things low key. In the end, if you’re racing every single weekend it weighs on you no matter how relaxed any individual race experience is.

For the last two weekends I have had a blast enjoying the spring skiing in Switzerland, and I want to make certain that I do more of this mid-winter, too.

I finally checked out Melchsee Frutt, a ski area that my friend Jonas gushed about all winter. It’s outside of Lucerne and you take a bus up to the bottom of a big gondola. Then, with your skinny cross-country skis, you take the gondola up with all sorts of alpine skiers, snowboarders, and families with toboggans (alpine sledding is a big and awesome thing here – don’t believe me? Read about when I sledded Grindelwald….)

The top of the gondola is at 1900 meters. The snow is sparkling. The sun is strong. There’s a 15 k loop, which isn’t really all that much, but it’s plenty to keep you entertained. It’s one of the first times cross-country skiing in Switzerland where I have really felt, dang, I’m in the Alps.

Melkst Frust.

Melchsee Frust.

There's a dogsled outfit called "Swisskimos", which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

There’s a dogsled outfit called “Swisskimos”, which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

I went there the day before Easter, and then on Easter Monday I skied 40 k in Lenzerheide. The first hour was incredible, but then I started skiing from town towards the biathlon/Tour de Ski stadium and realized that in this direction the cover was terrible and the snow was melting.

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction...

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction…

... with glimpses of summer on the way.

… with glimpses of summer on the way.

It was still an amazing day, though, and I had a blast using the fitness I’d accumulated over a season of racing without the pressure of, you know, racing.

This weekend I went one last time to Melchsee Frutt, with Jonas.

Smile, Jonas! You're skiing in April!

Smile, Jonas! You’re skiing in April!

One of us is more tired than the other one.

One of us is more tired than the other one.

We agreed: this was the last ski of the year. Time to summer wax the skis. Thanks skis. Til next year.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

My second resolution: cook more diverse and interesting food, and don’t fall into ruts. When I was skiing in Craftsbury I tried to bake a lot of different fancy desserts because I had too much time on my hands. Then when I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to take a job as a research assistant, I lived for the first time in a pretty diverse city. I took advantage of the Asian and Mexican grocery stores and went on a lot of culinary adventures. Since then, I mainly cook new things when I’m at home and making dinner for my parents. It turns out okay.

But at my own apartment, I’ve been a little bit lame. Sure, I make some good food, but often I resort to things that are quick and I usually stick to the safe, central European aisles of the neighborhood grocery.

So a few days after getting back from Oslo I finally, after a year and a half, went to an Asian grocery store in Zurich. I had been saying ever since arriving that I would do it. I found good dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin (Japanese cooking wine), rice vinegar, black bean chili garlic sauce (which is the best thing ever), lots of fun noodles, oyster sauce, better tofu, and fresh cilantro.

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I already need to go back and re-stock up on a few things that I’ve run out of, as well as more things, like peanuts and light soy sauce. I’ve had a blast cooking. A few favorites: this delicious stir fry recipe (using tofu instead of chicken), hot and sour soup, and some stir fried cabbage and rice noodles.

Spicy cucumber salad (this, but using cucumber you have chopped up, salted, and drained the water off of for 15 minutes) is a new side that I’ve been making to go with basically anything.

I also bought a cookbook which I have seen have glowing reviews in multiple places. It’s called Made In India, and it’s awesome. The author, Meera Sodha, lives in Britain and sprinkles the book with stories about her family. The recipes are great, but they’re also designed to be made with ingredients you can find at a normal grocery store.

My housemates have been thrilled that I’ve cooked a bunch of new curries: chickpea curry (Chana masala), potato curry (Aloo tamatar), roasted cauliflower. Buy this book. Your housemates, family, husband, wife, coworkers, whatever – they will love you a little bit more.

My third resolution: do more squats. I actually haven’t been to the gym in over two years. Gym memberships are expensive here. There’s a university facility that I could go to for free, but I hate the atmosphere. In Switzerland sports are already such a man’s world, and not surprisingly, on a college campus the gym feels like a meat market. At 28 years old I no longer feel like participating in this “see and be seen” and “leer at the girls working out in spandex” situation.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

When I was living in Eugene I went to a great high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program called Tabata. The details are a little different from other HIIT programs, but in the end most of these things are similar. If you are on a team or part of a training program, you don’t need any gimmicky workouts: just do what your coach says. For those of us training alone, sometimes we need extra motivation and organization.

Anyway, Jon’s Tabata program is based on just a few exercises: body-weight squats, squat-thrusts, and jumps. The workouts take just 30 minutes and they make you exhausted. You will sweat like a pig. Walking around the rest of the day your legs will shake.

But you will get strong. My legs became more powerful and I was more lean when I was doing those workouts. I have Jon’s “recipe book” for workouts and this year I’m determined to do some regularly. I need some power and fast-twitch muscles in my life.

Lastly: Productivity. It might seem like I’m pretty productive – I guess I am. I manage to do an okay job at being a PhD student and regularly produce content for FasterSkier.

But…. I could do better. In my PhD, things have gotten a bit overwhelming in the last six months. I’m stuck with a lot of data which I don’t really know how to analyze, but I should be analyzing it and writing it into manuscripts, at the same time that I continue to conceive of and execute new experiments. It’s a lot!

Just focus and get it done, for Pete's sake.

Just focus and get it done, for Pete’s sake.

When I get completely overwhelmed, my productivity crashes. It feels like I’ll never accomplish everything even if I try, so where do you even start?

This post from WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool really explains it best.

Spurred on my a comment from my housemate, I started looking into software that would keep me from logging onto facebook or checking my FasterSkier email during the work day.

Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? It sounds really dumb: you break your day into 25 minute chunks, and allow yourself five minutes in between to make a cup of tea, go for a quick walk around the building, check your email, whatever.

I’ve started using an app called Pomello which merges this technique with your to-do list. You pick a task and the timer starts counting your 25 minutes. When the 25 minutes is up, bingo! Reward yourself by replying to an email from a friend. Then you can restart the same task or pick another one. You can compare day-to-day how many of these 25-minute chunks you get done and how youre productivity is doing.

This sounds so completely trivial and pointless, but it has actually really helped me. I think it taps into some part of my innate insane competitiveness, so I do actually focus during the 25-minutes blocks. It’s short enough that you can keep yourself focused, sans distraction, for the whole time and chide yourself when you think about checking facebook. But it’s long enough that you can get some meaningful part of a task done, too.

If you’re a better worker than I am, this will seem irrelevant. But if, like me, you are getting bogged down and discouraged and reading interesting articles on the internet instead of doing your work… maybe give it a try?

Hopefully I can keep this newfound improvement to my focus through the whole year.

I think that part of the reason that “new years resolutions” never stuck for me is that if I make them on January 1, my day-to-day life if much the same before and after this magical cutoff date. I’m still on holiday (for a short time), I’m still balancing skiing and work, it’s still winter.

(The other part of why they don’t stick is that resolutions rarely work, period.)

This year, I’m thinking about them at a time when my life really is different: with the changing of the seasons, I have a real chance to start afresh. Things feel new, and like if I really wanted to change my life, I could succeed.

foxspotting.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

I watched the lying-down fox for a moment, then slowly reached to pull out my phone. I wanted to take a picture of this wildlife in my neighborhood. But my hand movement was too disruptive, and the fox hopped up, turned around, and jogged to the other side of the parking lot. From there it watched me.

I stood for five minutes on the sidewalk, looking across the parking lot at this fox. We stared each other down. Mentally I willed it to come closer, but no surprise, the fox was stronger. As the bell in the square rang 12:30, I walked up the street and home to my bed.

The larger Zurich metropolitan area has over a million people, and I thought it was very cool that I had seen foxes just trotting in between people’s houses, through their yards, past their driveways. There are many foxes around our farm in New Hampshire, but we rarely see them. It seems notable when you do.

But after a bit of research, I found that my experience wasn’t unique at all.

“The urban fox population is on the rise in Switzerland,” SwissInfo reported in 2011, complete with adorable pictures of foxes in yards. As of that writing, there were about 1,200 foxes in Zurich.

Shows what I know, as a country bumpkin: I thought that wildlife belonged to rural areas. Sure, there’s lots of birds and biodiversity even in urban areas, but foxes?

In 2002, a PhD student from my department wrote a five-manuscript dissertation about the foxes of Zurich. You can skim the whole thing here. It’s fascinating: it appears that there is a clear separation between urban and rural foxes, even when foxes living in rural settings on the outskirts of Zurich could easily shift their ranges into the city. In Zurich, as of 2002, Sandra Gloor found a density of ~10-11 foxes per square kilometer. To avoid contact with humans (i.e., me walking home drunk at night), the foxes used urban parks and cemeteries mostly during the early part of the night, then ventured into residential neighborhoods in the second half of the night, when people were more scarce; during the day, the rest in parks, cemeteries, and fallow land on the outskirts of the city.

Foxes only moved into the city proper in the mid-80s in any large numbers. It’s a phenomenon that has happened all over the world: London has more than 10,000 urban foxes and a significant amount of human-fox conflict.

I like our Zurich foxes, though. It reminds me that wherever you go, there’s a little more nature than you might suspect, and that animals are highly adaptable.

(P.S. Are you a fan of foxes? Check out my friend Jean’s artwork at WildLines Studio, and you can buy beautiful prints like this one of a jumping red fox.)

reality (of) settling in.

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By now I’m a pro at traveling and moving. Over the last two years I lived in four different countries; at this point I’m up to 16 months straight where I haven’t stayed in one country for a whole month, whether it means a “permanent” move or a conference or vacation.

When I left the U.S. on Halloween to move to Zurich, things were easy. Packing went more smoothly than it ever has in the past. The travel was no problem; at JFK I talked my way into the U.S. Airways Lounge by charming the front desk lady. There, I enjoyed free breakfast and stocked up on snacks for my trip. I even managed to actually sleep on the overnight flight.

Moving in and settling down, I thought, would be just as easy. Paperwork? I’ve done that before. Bureaucratic rules? Check. Learning where the nearest grocery store is? Yeah, I’ve done that. (Not to mention, I now have an iPhone so I can actually get directions and maps on the fly, which is huge.)

After all, I have been looking forward to this so much: coming to Zurich, working in an amazing institute, living in one place for three years. Making myself a home and finding a community. Traveling with a backpack, instead of a duffel bag and a ski bag each weighing 50 pounds. Having a kitchen; having a living room. Having a bedroom that is separate from those rooms. Having a yard! Having plants. Being able to get into a routine, to have habits like going for a run in the morning. Having space to plan in.

I’m certainly well on my way to those goals.

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But surprisingly, the moving-in and settling-down part is proving harder than I had expected. Way harder. And I don’t mean that it’s a stuggle: most things were checked off my list in the first day. I have a phone number, a bank account, a train pass, some furniture. The main things remaining are university registration (all my documents are in but the University of Zurich inexplicably takes up to three months to process it?) and, once that’s complete, insurance. And the migration board. Switzerland lets you in as long as you have a visa, but then waits to offer you an appointment to get a residence permit – so for weeks, potentially, you’re living with no Swiss-issued permission or ID. Which prevents you from checking a whole bunch of other things off your list.

What’s hard is that every day when I come home from work, I’m exhausted. Totally, completely done with the world. As I recently wrote in an e-mail to one friend, ” I get home and I melt into a puddle of useless sofa-glop.” (At least I have a sofa.)

The things that I want to do in my evenings don’t get done. I don’t go for that jog or do that circuit workout. I don’t read that paper or work on that manuscript left over from my masters degree. I don’t even reply to e-mails from my friends – the act of typing out my thoughts is too much. I don’t write the article for FasterSkier.

Probably, I peruse the internet and, in a haze, read some pop culture news that doesn’t even absorb into my brain.

Why this is so, I can’t seem to explain.

There’s been a lot of discussion in academic circles recently about how we all complain about how busy and stressed we are, but that’s only because we choose to see ourselves as busy and stressed. There have been some fabulous rebuttals, my favorite of which comes from Timothée Poisot:

“the raw volume of things we have to do increases over time; so does our productivity, but with a delay. We are essentially in a Red-Queen dynamics with ourselves: more work to do means that we have to develop a new coping strategy, in the form of more productive habits. Then when we feel comfortable, we take on more work, and become overworked again.”

(If you’re not familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis, here‘s a nice explanation of how a chapter in Through The Looking Glass is related to evolutionary theory.)

Looking back over the last few years, I totally see this in my life. That’s why I think it’s such a great explanation. I’ve gone from producing 50 to 75 to over 100 race reports (of increasingly better quality) for FasterSkier every winter, while simultaneously holding better and more serious jobs – hell, I did a masters degree which involved writing my own grants and administering a field season. I never feel totally comfortable, but as I pile on more things, they always seem to get done with no more stress than the previous, slightly-smaller workload.

Do things get lost in the lurch? Yeah. Personal relationships. But I still have good epistolary (ok, e-mail) relationships with some great friends, and things always fall back into place when I see them. I still wish I was better though, and wish I was closer to some of the people I care most about. And I wish I had more time to exercise – that for sure gets lost. I’m in the worst shape of my life since high school, but on the other hand, I’m still certainly in better shape than most people. It’s just my personality and life experience that keep me saying that this isn’t good enough.

Business, and busy-ness, marches onward, to both ever-new heights and exactly the same height.

What I can’t reason my way around is my sudden crash once I moved to Zurich. If anything, I’m less “busy” than I have been: the grind of the PhD has barely started. I’m still reading papers and trying to feel my way out. I will start seminars and journal clubs for the first time this week; up until now I got out of many of the demands of my position by virtue of being “new” and “still settling in”. Compared to my classmates all around me, life is a breeze.

So perhaps it comes down to this. For the last two years, I have known that every move is more or less temporary. That I need to make friends, but maybe not worry about them too much because I’ll just leave them soon. That the main thing I need to do is keep myself happy from day to day. (And in the course of being happy, of course, you end up making friends who are much more than temporary.)

Now, there’s a lot more pressure. I have to find the things that can keep me happy for the next three years. I have to make better, lasting relationships. If I go for a run, I’m thinking, oh yes, this is how my morning run will be! Which means, wait, what if I don’t like that morning run?

Which is silly, of course.

Yesterday I went for a hike with my friend Timothée (not the same as the guy who wrote the blog post). I randomly picked a place on the map where there were nice-looking mountains (at least according to contour lines) that wasn’t too far from Zurich. We took the train for an hour and set out.

It turned out to be up, for 3000+ feet straight. No breaks, no little flats or downhills as you head for the next ridge. It took impossibly long (well, just 1 1/2 hours with some breaks to look at chamois and sketchy cable cars) to reach the point I had marked on the map as where we could decide which of several routes to take onward. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I’d look at my watch and realize that it had only been ten minutes since the last time I looked at my watch, thinking, we must be getting somewhere by now.

Of course, we eventually got somewhere – somewhere with beautiful views. It was rewarding and I was thrilled to be in the mountains. All of the things that you remember when hiking as soon as the part that sucks stops.

And that’s a little bit like what starting in Zurich is like. It’s uphill and I am more and more exhausted, and I keep thinking, somewhere up ahead is a trail that traverses across the side of the mountain. Sometime it won’t be uphill anymore. It must be right around the next corner.

The bottom line is that moving takes a lot more out of you than you expect. Over the next few months, things will get easier. Routines will develop without me consciously thinking, “oh yes, this is a routine which is developing.” Days will become a blur of office, seminars, meetings, lunch with the lab group, German class, presentations. Weekends will be for skiing and reporting. I won’t notice so much the weird starkness of settling in before you are settled in.

And I will get back to being busy as a student, as a writer, as a crazy-ass human being. You know, like usual. For some reason, that doesn’t exhaust me.

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on top of the world!

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I’m in Davos, and I’m on top of the world! Okay, not quite literally, I’m not on top of the biggest mountain here and the mountains here certainly aren’t the biggest in Switzerland. But I’m on top of something, and I can see quite far, and thankgodI’mbackinthemountains.

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But also… I feel emotionally like I’m on top of the world. I have an exciting announcement: I’ve been accepted to do a PhD at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Florian Altermatt, which I’m really looking forward to. My project on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using a meta-ecosystem framework will be fun and challenging. I’ll have to learn a lot! Already, I know that I will need to learn to identify and work with amphipods, small crustaceans which will serve as our main study taxa, and how to set up mesocosm experiments. There’s also talk of using stable isotopes to track carbon and other fluxes through ecosystems, which I’m excited to tackle. I was at Eawag on Thursday for a visit and interview, and I think that it will be great group to work with. A lot of smart people but all really friendly and, most importantly, everyone seemed very happy. That’s something important when you are deciding whether to make a 3-year commitment!

I’m really relieved to have my future worked out a little bit and to think that I won’t be unemployed once I finish my masters. I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for 3 years – I want to continue traveling and having adventures, but I haven’t felt like I have had a home base to come back to in my time in Europe so far, so that will be a very welcome change. I can have a few more belongings than fit into one suitcase, and hopefully my road bike too. I never realized how much I would look forward to a little bit of stability.

And, I’m excited to be at Eawag for a few more reasons. It is a very amazing research institute, highly respected and covering all aspects of freshwater research, not only ecology but also more applied things. For instance, on the news page you can find, in close proximity, an announcement of Dr. Altermatt getting the big grant which will fund my project; “Combining the best of both toilet worlds“; “Cocktail of pesticides in Swiss rivers“; and a notice about extending the wastewater treatment plant. I think that working in a place which has multiple fields of focus will be a great opportunity and hopefully make my research more dynamic. It’s great to think of being able to check ideas with people looking at other aspects of river ecosystems. And, because of their focus on sustainability, the main building is the amazing Forum Chriesbach which is built from a lot of prototype materials, harvests rainwater for the bathrooms, and is so energy-efficient that it doesn’t have a heating or cooling system!!

Finally, my degree will be through University of Zurich, which is also pretty cool. While I was in town for the interview I stayed with my friend Timothée and visited the campus and his lab. There is a lot of very cool research going on there, and in general, Zurich is an amazing academic environment. There’s also ETH Zurich, the Swiss university, and the two institutions collaborate on seminars and courses. It is going to be a very stimulating few years.

So, I have a lot of joy in my life right now. For the weekend, I’m focusing on tying up some loose ends and spending a bit of time in the mountains which I have missed so dearly.

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