Saturday, October 07, 2006

Ciao summer

I'm finally home from my crazy month of traveling. These are actual pictures that I took in Fairbanks in September. SEPTEMBER. They weren't kidding about the short summers. At least a friendly face greets me in the window here. All three dogs are playing every day until they drop from exhaustion. Bob is out doing field work on the Seward Peninsula again, but I'm sure he will post more dog pictures when he's back. I've posted links to his and my other friends' blogs.

This is my first week with my new studded tires. I don't know how I got this far in life without studded tires, but Fairbanksians assure me that I can't live without them here. Though I have to wonder about those people driving 20 year old Novas or little Caprices...I mean, surely those aren't just their summer cars? Maybe they take the bus in winter. Or get by somehow, as many people seem to do here.

The aurora have been amazing this fall. Bob and watched them tear through the sky a few nights ago. Strong green waves flowing quickly across the black sky. I don't have a camera that can capture them, and Bob didn't have his with we were stuck just watching the light, awestruck.

Capturing life's science

After returning from British rambling, I headed to NYC to build some new sensors for my field station north of town. My collaborator Allan was kind enough to give me some workspace at CUNY on the Upper Eastside, near good coffee and expensive food. And the worlds poshest Home Depot, let me tell you.

I didn't envision my visit to NYC would be spent locked in a small room on the roof of a highrise, soldering 120 thermistors onto telephone wires, but such is the adventurous life of science.

I did manage to see many friends and then head to Boston to give a couple more talks. The weather was pleasantly warm and it was great to see my brother and his wife in Boston.

Merry Ol'

In late August, I headed to England to give a talk at a meeting in Cambridge. It was a real triumph, as the ol' beans would say. After a week of feeling very old skool at the Scott Polar Research Inst and seeing friends (Alex, Misha, Katia, Todd) in town, I headed down to Reading for the weekend. There I visited my friends Andrew, Cristina, and Judith, who showed me around London and the countryside. So great to see everyone! Great to see England! I heart tea!!

The weather was a delightful change from the snow we'd had at Toolik the week before. My favorite thing we did was go for a couple of rambles across the countryside. Walking through fields and past churches and vast estates. And when got tired, we just stopped for tea, of course!


Friday, August 18, 2006

Toolik, Take 2

Late August finds me up on the North Slope again, at Toolik Field Station. This trip is part of my institute’s annual graduate summer climate science workshop. The weather has been unseasonably cold here, but the students have kept a positive attitude and we’ve had some fun times. Since we are studying snow and ecology, it is nice that we could arrange for a snow event up here. It really illustrates some of the concepts we’ve been discussing. Still, with so many people in camp in the cold, we are at full power generating capacity and have to schedule electricity outages. The poor students have been wearing their gloves and hats during the lectures in the dark classroom tent. I don’t think anyone will be sad to say goodbye to the snow when we leave, but the wood-fired sauna has assuaged our suffering considerably.

A couple of days ago, we drove up to Prudhoe Bay to get a tour of the oilfields and swim in the Arctic Ocean. Brrr. I don’t need to do that again. Prudhoe Bay was an interesting place to see, given the current partial shutdown of the pumping there. The oil fields look like a sight from Mad Max; big, color-coded camps for each company, isolated by swampy tundra. BP, Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and Haliburton are all there. We saw a grizzly bear near the road, jumping on a squirrel burrow. The flat coastal plain looks a lot like the Nebraska prairie, and in fact we saw a flock of Sandhill cranes, making their way south. 10,000 year-old Athabaskan ruins have been found here, where hunters watched for herds of caribou. It’s a beautiful place where the landscape has changed both slowly and quickly. The caribou have wandered this slope for thousands of years, but now the pipeline snakes quietly through the river valley. More development is likely to come.

Yesterday we took a break from the classroom to head into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for a great hike in the Brooks Range. This has been a perfect way to cap the summer season. Tomorrow we head back to Fairbanks and I fly off to a meeting in England. Bob is also out in the field, a couple hundred miles to the west from here in a place called Ivotuk. He’s uninstalling some meteorological towers with a Russian friend of ours who eats raw bacon. I hope you guys are staying warm! Thanks to modern technology, we’ve been able to keep in touch via wireless internet, even in these remote places. Thank you Al Gore.


Adventures with Superbob

So who’s this Bob guy? Well, he appeared in an earlier blog as the leader of the adventure to Nome and environs. He seems to have stuck around ever since. Bob is a hydrology field engineer and researcher, photographer, chef, dog lover, and blogger ( extraordinare. From Sitka in Southeast Alaska. He lives in a cabin down the road from me with his girls, Midge and Bergey. Bob’s been in Fairbanks for the last ten years and current goals include getting indoor plumbing shortly after (?) his outhouse frost-jacks completely out of the ground. Bob is also the nexus for a cast of great local characters: strong ladies and goofy men, is how I would describe them. That seems to be the way they grow ‘em up here!


Summer in Alaska

There was a season on visitors this summer in Fairbanks. In early May, Tim and Rachel came up to see me and on the way back stopped in Seattle to see Rachel’s sister Danielle. Though Fairbanksians are already enthusiastically sporting short sleeves and rollerskis by this time, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. We all went to Denali Park before it was officially open. We biked in a few miles and saw a Ptarmigan and a momma bear with cubs. Biked through a couple snow squalls…it was still pretty cold. Tim and Rachel took it easy around Fairbanks then, while I worked. They helped me finish unpacking and headed to the nearby hotsprings. It was a fun visit, but you two should come back when it’s warm!

Next came my pal Jeff from Lamont. He flew into Anchorage, which gave me an excuse to go check out South Central Alaska. We hiked and camped near Hope, Seward (lovely Primrose Campground on Kenai Lake), and Whittier. We drove back to Fairbanks and Jeff, Bob and I went hiking at Angel Rocks before Jeff headed out on a four-day solo trek on the Chena dome trail. Luckily he didn’t run into the bears that were wandering around out there. Then he headed back to Anchorage on the train. Matilda came along on most of the adventures, but she was still having a lot of behavior problems. She could seem to be let out of my sight without whining and crying. Poor Jeff! They became buddies by the end though.

Next came Mom. We had lots of fun. Bob, Mom, and I headed down to Denali for a nice bus tour. It was drizzly, but that merely brought out the nice colors on the rocks. Polychrome was gorgeous. Mom also enjoyed kicking around Fairbanks, heading to the knitting store, watching us BBQ, and seeing the giant cabbage at the botanical garden. Bob had a list of required activities including the hotsprings and North Pole, where we took photos of us with giant, barbed wire-lined Santa next to an RV park. By the end of the week, Mom even got the hang of the outhouse. Yay! Matilda was feeling much better about life by this time. Bob’s been teaching her to meditate when she gets angry and to get along with his dogs. Getting better all the time. But when Grandma Judy brought dried liver chips, she became an instant hit.

After Mom came Abby and Miriam, my friends from graduate school. Along with Bob and the three dogs (Bob’s two and my one) the five of us had a blast. Abby and Miriam took a great backpacking trip to Denali. Then we went to a fun wedding reception for Bob’s photographer/dog musher friends Sam and Jillian. The highlights of that night included Bob taking illicit pictures with the camera of the bride’s father and them becoming best buddies afterwards. The evening culminated with a guy running through the yard with a BBQ rib in his mouth, chased by 8 or 9 dogs ranging from huskies to a small poodle. Abby, Miriam, Bob, Matilda, and I also went berry picking and canoeing on Abby’s last weekend in town. Lots of fun!! Great summer everyone!!


End of an Era

I’ve finally ended a long run at Columbia University. There’s no other place quite like it. I moved to Manhattan when I was 18 years old and left just after turning 29. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine spending these years of my life anywhere else. What an adventure. It was hard to leave. During the last 8 years New York became a cultural center for my generation. It was THE place to be. Other Nebraskans agreed as they migrated to the city for college, journalism school, law school, and jobs. Nebyorkers: I love you all! And then a war started there. A war which will be the other defining element of our generation. The impact of the war on individual families is stronger in the American South and Midwest, where most of our soldiers are coming from. But when the threat reappears on U.S. soil, I imagine New York City will return to those anxious days of 2001.


Friday, June 16, 2006

The North Slope

I just returned from another field adventure out on Alaska's North Slope, the area north of the Brooks Range. This was more of a reconnaissance mission than anything. I was working with a group from University of Texas at Austin, who was sampling water on the Sag, Kuparuk, and other rivers in the area, all the way up to Prudhoe bay.

The trip up was pretty cool. I took a van driven by a friend of mine, Alice, who has driven the haul road between Fairbanks and Prudhoe for 11 years. She knows every trucker and every tree on that road. We'd be driving in the middle of nowhere and she'd pull out the CB radio to check to see if Jack or Jerry was home. We stopped in Coldfoot to drop off some folks at the airfield. They were going to be flown into someplace for a week of hiking. Man, some people just can't get far enough away from themselves. Sheesh. This is already 6-hours north of Fairbanks. The coolest thing in Coldfoot was that a couple of kids had a lemonade stand on the airfield. How cute is that?

The Arctic cotton was in full force, since most of the snow is gone. Beautiful! Toolik Field Station was home base, a strange M*A*S*H unit for scientists. I tagged along with Jim, Amy, Breton, and Jorges while they sampled the Sag in five places. Jorges was from Peru, Jim and Amy were working in Texas and Breton was from Hawaii.

We ran into this goofy butterfly guy who was camped out at the river, about 60 miles from Prudhoe Bay. Said he was from Salt Lake City, but he'd been at that campsite for weeks looking for caterpillers. When he found them, he put little tents around them and waited for them to turn into butterfies. The day we were there was the day the first one hatched. This made me miss Matilda who likes to chase butterflies.

Toolik is mostly a biological research station, and the summer interns had just arrived. Including a goofy guy named Eugene who was a computing science bigwig who happened to enjoy lying on his stomach weeding mosses. Go figure.

There was still ice on the lake when I got there and a few days later it was almost gone. The loons are the most famous bird on this little lake, but there were also swans swimming in the open water. Very peaceful. flickr

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

To Fly or Not to Fly

The next morning we woke up in a dark cloud. Literally. The cloud base was only a ~100 feet above the air strip. We called back to Nome on our satellite phone and talked to the Bering Air dispatcher. After Bob laboriously transmitted the poor conditions to the dispatcher over the intermittent connection, she replied, “Oh, of course we can’t fly, Nome is all fogged in.” Thanks. After waking up in what my flight safety instructor would call canonical bad flying conditions, however, I was fine with waiting. Bob and I made another cup of coffee while we thought of plan “B” which was a trip back to Nome for, among other things, beer.

That evening we returned to Quartz Creek, packed up more met station instruments and tools, tossed the camp canoe on our truck and drove to the Kougarok landing. Here we canoed and then hiked to several more met stations, gauged the river, and installed some rods to track this season’s thermokarst erosion on a stream called Niagra. It was another late night.

The next morning we went ahead with the helicopter flight to fix the Kigluaiks radio repeater and the Skookum Pass antenna. Skookum was another met station and the Kigluaiks repeater station helps transport the VHF signal into a base station in Nome. It was really chilly at these sites and I was only wearing jeans (designer ones mind you) with no long-underwear in case I caught on fire in a helo crash. Our pilot was a Nome lifer about our age who probably burned more fuel keeping himself warm in the helo than he did transporting us, but gave us complimentary flight narration. He and his buddies were starting an ambitious hunting, flying, and fishing charter business. They were building a cabin to house the guests, but the late pack ice in the harbor was preventing the first summer barge from coming in and they were out of building supplies. Ben would entertain us, though, by flying in close to various cabins and saying “let’s see if the Hansons are out for the weekend or whether it’s too cold for them.”

We did see a bear and her three cubs from the helo. They were playing in one of the mining ditches and just looked like teddies from the air. Back at base camp the National Park Service had flown in two tiny Super Cubs for a week of bear surveys. Two NPS rangers were waiting for the planes to come in when we arrived one evening. They were a couple of goofballs: a giddy middle-aged white stoner who was probably from New Jersey and an old quiet Native guy. They were joking with us that they were waiting for a bunch of “enthusiastic young women to show up in planes to count bears”. Ah yes, everyone loves intern season.

I could go on for pages describing the rest of the trip, but I have to pack for the next one on the North Slope of Alaska. Suffice it to say that Bob and I celebrated back in town with some Japanese pizza and I flew back to Fairbanks. It’s true there is “No place like Nome” and I look forward to coming back soon.


Does “All Terrain” Include Tussock Tundra?

The next morning Bob and I head out in our truck on one of the old mining roads. About an hour and a half up the road we stop at the Kuzitrin River to gauge it and service the met station. The bridge over this river used to be the Cushman street bridge over the Chena in Fairbanks. When Fairbanks remodeled they shipped it up north and put it here. Probably one of the few Alaska recycling projects that worked out.

I should also mention that Nome is packed this time of year with the subspecies known as Homo Birdwatcherous. They made up most of our flight over here and can be spotted a mile away. Light rain jackets, homemade knit hats, wire glasses, binoculars around their necks at all times, camera tripods, folding chairs, and of course, bird books. Homo Birdwatcherous also travels in pairs, typically in their late 50s-late 60s. Often from Michigan. Anyway, as the birds come north, so to the birdwatchers and these peacenik versions of fishing hobbiests are the source of much fun-making by the locals, probably because they don’t kill anything.

The Kuzitrin River has birds all over it. I don’t know any of their names, but there are small ones which make tweety noises, medium-sized ones which make sorrowful wails, and big geese which honk like taxis. Bob and I measure the speed of the river with an Acoustic Doppler Profiler called a Rivercat. Bob puts on his waders, straps a car battery on his back and wades out to the met station. Like the previous one, this tower is a couple feet underwater and only the instrument box is dry. I hang back and watch for moose and bears. Most of my job on this trip is to make sure bob doesn’t drown or get attacked by an animal. Though I’m familiar with most of the equipment, I have little to offer Bob; he’s a capable technician. I try to provide cheerful company at least.

Next we make our way up the mining road to a base camp called Quartz Creek. This is a small, unheated building next to a bush air strip and a couple of comex/semi-trailers/containers (these seem to be called something different in every part of the world). We unload our gear and supplies into the building. We pull the 4-wheeler out of the container and fill it with fuel. The engine won’t turn over, so we jump it with another battery we have.

Bob shows me how the controls work and sends me out on the air strip to learn how to drive it and charge up the battery. Meanwhile he packs for our trip out to a couple more met stations. Driving the ATV is a lot more fun than I expected. I “tear it” down the gravel runway for a while, then head back to where Bob is waiting. We bungee a Rubbermaid lid to the cargo rack where is says “No passengers” and strap our equipment and bear spray on the front. I hop on the cargo rack and Bob says, “Hold on!”

The road goes another mile or so past this camp, but we turn off earlier onto the tussock tundra. The first few hundred meters are muddy as hell and we get the 4-wheeler stuck a couple of times. Then the mud subsides to tussock that burned recently leaving isolated 10 inch tall mounds of grass separated by little moats of marshy tundra. Each wheel on the ATV must climb each of these little grass islands between squishing through the tiny moats. It’s slow going with the ATV lurching back and forth, occasionally threatening to flip over.

After 20 minutes of this from the vantage point of the cargo rack, I’m fairly sure my spine has dislocated, so I jump off and walk in the direction Bob says the met station should be. Hiking through the burned tussocks is nearly as bad; the mounds are not sturdy enough to support my weight, so my ankle just rolls off of them. The mini-moats between them seem better, but they are too narrow, so my boots get caught and I stumble every few feet. Despite the challenge of the tussocks, crossing 3 foot snow drifts, and wading through willow swamps, Bob only beats me to the station by a few minutes. He downloads the data while I attach a radiometer and we are both dive-bombed by the enormous early season mosquitos.

For the second station I decide the cargo rack on the ATV is the better option and suggest to Bob that NSF acquisition a monster truck for this job. Or a trail pony. I find the most comfortable position I can and concentrate on looking for bears as we negotiate a 2 mile trek, tussock by tussock. The second station we arrive at has been mauled by a bear. The precipitation gauge has been crushed, as if the bear sat on it. The animal then crawled up the tower, took a bite out of the windmill-shaped anemometer and bent over the temperature/humidity gauge. Finally to add insult to injury, the bear crapped all over the station. Sheesh.

We re-assembled and McGuyvered the instruments as best we could. By the time we headed back to our camp, everything was back to working except the half-eaten anemometer and we’d installed a radiometer. It felt great to get out of the cold, make dinner, and crawl into bed. By this time it was 1 am. One problem with Arctic fieldwork in the summer is that you are never constrained by the sun, only your own energy.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

It’s a Lot Better than a Dog’s Life

I am accompanying one of the UAF hydrology technicians into the field here to service about six meteorological stations, install the instruments which they only use in summer, and repair any damage done by bears or harsh weather. My companion here, Bob, is my age, with a mechanical engineering degree from UAF and a life of experience living and working all over Alaska. Bob has a particularly upbeat attitude which makes him well-suited for this harsh job. His attitude ships with a hilarious giggle and some of the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard in my life, for which he thoughtfully provided me several pairs of ear plugs.

The first day in the area we checked into the local hotel, rented a truck, picked up the cargo we’d shipped ahead, stopped by our storage unit for more parts, bought gas and did our grocery shopping. Then we headed out to the Snake River, just outside of town, pull on our waders and gauge the river. We found the meteorological station sitting in several feet of swampy half-frozen water, but it seemed to be working fine. A couple pressure transducers had been abandoned over the winter as they’d frozen in before Bob and one of the grad students had gotten here on the last trip of the past summer.

Driving back into town we passed a dozen or so kennels of sled dogs. Nome is the end point of the Iditarod race and many locals compete. A sled dog kennel isn’t exactly what most people on the Outside picture when they hear the word “kennel”. It’s 10 or 20 or more individual dog houses with a dog chained tightly, so it can’t touch (or destroy) the other dogs. Sometimes these kennels are on a concrete pad so they can easily be cleaned with a hose. More often they are on bare ground and therefore everything—the dogs, their houses, and the surrounding area are dusty. These Nome kennels were particularly dirty and dusty and in many cases just out in a tundra field with no human presence nearby. Come winter, it must be a sight to see these dogs doing what they do best: running like hell. In the meantime, their lives seem pretty-much like hell and I’m skeptical that there’s a humane way to do this sport. flickr

There's No Place Like Nome

Bob's truck rumbles into my driveway a few mornings after the flight safety class. We head out to the airport and pile ourselves and all of our gear boxes onto the 14-seater Beechcraft 1900 that's headed to Nome. These planes are the way to go. No security, no metal detector, no flight attendant, no W.C. It's just a 2-hr flight to Nome, a small coastal town on the Seward Peninsula that forms the U.S. side of the Bering Strait.

I have fond memories of Nome. I was here a few years ago at the terminus of a research cruise in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Nome is unusual for a small coastal Alaska town in that there are several roads that are maintained deep inland, up into the mountains. Gold was found here by the "three lucky Swedes" over a hundred years ago. Nome became an early engineering feat as hundreds of laborers dug water trenches for miles and miles deep into the mountains, to bring water to the mines. Gold dredges still dot the landscape. Apparently there were even competing companies who dug the water trenches and folks with claims who didn't pay up got their canal blocked off.

Three years ago, I'd piled into a beer-stocked van with my friends from the USCG Healy and driven out in search of the local hot springs. But, like many things in Alaska, this plan didn't quite work out. Twenty miles or so on our way the road had been washed out and offending creek had frozen in place. Despite the drunken jeering from the backseat, my responsible friend Ryan had decided against coaxing the rental van down into and more importantly back out of the icy hole where that section of the road used to be. And the tussock tundra on each side of the hole was impassible.

Despite this failure, we'd spotted some musk oxen up on a hillside and ventured up to see them. My friend Chris is a wildlife photographer. He set up his tripod on the ridge and waited an hour to get all the shots he wanted. Though it was only early October, it was far below zero with the wind blowing and light patches of snow everywhere. Few of us had brought our heavy-weight sea gear and only our drunkenness kept us huddled behind a rock staring down these squat, wooly, paleolithic survivors.

Later, we found a warmer valley with a lake connected to the Bering Sea. Here, misty rain lit up the tundra's brilliant colors and salmon carcasses were washed up everywhere around the lake. They had made their run and fertile eggs were waiting out the winter below what was already a thin layer of ice on the lake.

This trip to Nome has been every bit as enchanting. I really like this place. Spring has come late this year. The port is still frozen in with pack ice. The mountains are still covered in snow. Many of the roads are still closed by snow drifts and there's still river ice here on June 4th. But the light makes up for it. It plays in the maritime clouds and shines for more than all my waking hours; soon the summer solstice will be here. Still it's cold and windy, which stifles the carelessness of summer and leaves the heavy-weight of winter lingering.


Is this the day we might burn up, Bob?

Within my first few weeks here in AK, I've jumped on a couple opportunities to do fieldwork with some folks who have a lot of experience working out here. Much of the work out in Alaska's bush requires helicopters or small planes because there are few roads. So, one of the first things I was asked to do was to take a small aircraft safety class over at the Fairbanks office of the Bureau of Land Management. Early on a Wednesday morning I pile into a sleepy classroom with a couple dozen folks who are about to start the summer field season for the park service or the university.

Our instructor is a stringy old guy who starts the class by telling us about all of the crashes--he calls them unanticipated landings--he's survived and how. He reminded me of my high school health teacher who showed us videos of don't-drink-and-drive stories like "Blood on the Highway" and "The Last Prom" to scare the crap out of us.

A lot of people have asked me why aircraft crash so often in the Arctic. My basic understanding is that the reasons are a combination of poor weather conditions, sparse weather monitoring, and the aircrafts in question. The lower part of the atmosphere (troposphere) is thin in the Arctic and the result is that clouds are very low and it's difficult to climb the mountinous topography in low clouds. Many Alaskan towns are coastal and subject to a cloudy maritime climate. Few weather stations exist relative to the vast area of the state, so weather prediction has little skill. And finally, people fly around in really old aircraft. If you are trying to summit a 3000 meter snowy mountain with a 2500 m cloud base in a helicopter built during the Korean war, you are in trouble. It's difficult to visually separate the clouds from the snow and easy for a pilot to get disoriented.

The basic advice we got in this class was "don't wear synthetic fiber clothing while flying in small aircraft. If you crash, you will have fuel on you and then you will catch on fire and your clothes will melt onto your skin. So wear all cotton or a Nomax fireproof flight suit. Second wear a plastic impact-proof flight helmet which can sustain even multiple contacts with a spinning rotar on the helo. The class was interesting/terrifying. My soon-to-be fieldwork companion, Bob, asked me if I learned anything. "Oh and by the way, we don't have any of that safety gear...hee hee ha hoo hoo (hysterical laughter)"...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ms. Matilda

What can I say? It was just a matter of time. My boss and his wife found this dog and her five pups by the roadside, abandonned. When the pups were weaned, I took mom home. She's a great dog. Greg and Ilana already have 28 dogs, so they didn't need six more. Anyone still need a puppy? Check out


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Back in the USSR

Well, I'm back home in Alaska; my Moscow-on-the-Tanana. I went on a great canoeing trip with some friends. The float was called the Clearwater, for obvious reasons. While most bodies of water are still frozen, the Clearwater is spring-fed and already ice-free. It was beautiful. Ice shelves along the banks. My friends know how to travel well; when we pulled out for lunch, I unpacked my PB&J and they unpacked their roast chicken and bottle of wine. You guys are great! flickr

I knew that my post-doctoral life had started on Saturday when I drove to the grocery store with a canoe on the roof of my car, and a bike and two pairs of skis inside. Contrary to expectation, summer has actually started here. It may only get into the 40s during the day, but that's warm enough for t-shirts and sandals for Alaskans. Best of all; I was going to change the lightbulb on my front porch tonight when I realized that with twilight until 11 pm, why bother! I'll do it in October and save electricity.

Drs. Hobo, Hobo, and Hobo, how may we direct your call?

So, as many of you know, I stopped in NY on the way back from Vienna to defend the document I wrote in geekschool. This is a pretty big event in the life of a scientist; maybe the biggest, unless you are lucky enough to get tenure somewhere or win the Nobel Prize.

I have to say this defense process went very well for me. My committee had a really positive attitude and I had an audience full of friends. A couple of you were even kind enough to post an encouraging banner at the back of the auditorium. Perhaps you all could come with me when I start giving job talks?

I thought it would be fun to do something kind of glamorous to mark the occasion, so I rented a room in a boutique design hotel that had a glass pool with a swim up bar. This seemed like an excellent, low-key way to celebrate.

My brother and sister-in-law and I packed up our swimming suits, a change of clothes and headed to Times Square. But apparently glamour is not in my bloodline. The coveted pool was out of commission. So instead of frolicking in a chic hotel pool we were squatting on a stoop in midtown, holding our student-issue backpacks and pondering what to do next.

I said "how come I'm a doctor and Rachel, you are a doctor and Tim, you're almost a doctor and still, we're hobos." Some people know that I have a hobo complex. No matter how hard I try, I always end up in the same old hobo place. It's not a terrible thing to be. I mean, hobos aren't bums; they go places. See the world. By boxcar, carrying all of their possessions in their hobo bag. Remind you of anyone? Yeah, that's what I mean.

I mentioned to Tim and Rachel that I had a bottle of wine in my bag. "Well, did you bring a corkscrew?" "No, but the bottle's open already. Remember you opened it with a big hook last night. "Awesome."

So we sat for a while discussing the hobo ethic. "Hobos are smart, yo." "That's right, dude. A hobo wouldn't accept a high design hotel room without a pool and wet bar." "Hells yeah."

"So, anyone got an idea?" "Nope." "Anyone got a cup for this here wine." "I do." Rachel empties a cup she's holding full of M&Ms into Tim's hand. "Well, food AND drink. Nice job, Hobos."

"Let's go break into the Marriot's pool." "Okay." "What if they don't have a pool?" "Oh, come on, they'll have a pool."

We proceed to the Marriot. After waiting for a "pod" elevator for 10 minutes, we arrive at the reception. "Where's your pool?" I ask. "We don't have one." "WHAT?" "But we have a great gym." "Humph." I'm certainly not going to celebrate doctorhood by breaking into a hotel gym. We get in line to go down the pod elevator. "Man." "Let's go find the hobo train yard," "maybe it's almost dinner time and we can get some beans and boot stew from Cookie." "Yeah, remind me to store beans in my backpack." "Should we drink this wine now?" We conceded to meeting our friends at Under the Volcano, my favorite Earth Science-themed bar. It was a fun, albeit perfectly legal evening. We had beans for dinner, but they were Ethiopian.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sunday Afternoon Roller Disco, NYC

It was strange to come back to a city where I lived for a long time and see it as a different person, even 3 weeks later. It's almost too familiar (or strange?) for me to write about, but I'll try.

I think the late 1970s/early 1980s must have been a cultural golden age for the city. At least a few key elements of NY culture arose during this era which people really cling to. One is neo-deco "contemporary" furniture design. Renderings of beds and dining sets in this style, plastic or enameled aluminum, can be found in a ghetto furniture store in just about every neighborhood in Manhattan. Pink and grey are key to the palette. By economic reasoning, it must be the case that demand for this stuff is consistent and ongoing. This blows my mind. It's not that NYC is the only place one can find this furniture; it’s in every town in the U.S. It's that you would expect more from NYC, some kind of natural selection for good taste. Small spaces and high standards of living have enforced style Darwinism all over Europe. But every real New Yorker knows that the city is actually completely filled with ugly crap and undrinkable coffee. There is no explanation for this in classical economic theory.

A second important example of a NY style anachronism is the persistence of the ladies' polyester Sunday suit. These may have a proper name, but this is the only description I can think of. I think you know what I mean.

There are entire swaths of midtown retail devoted to the ladies Sunday suit. This is some of planet Earth's most valuable real estate and it serves what must be hordes of 60-year old women. Except one never really sees them. The shops are always empty and their wares fading in the windows, blue suits faster than red ones. Unless the DVD release of Tomlin & Parton's 9-to-5 has sparked a renewed demand for the oversized polyester suit, this remains another NYC cultural mystery.

Example number three is Cool 101.9. This radio station must have more listeners than any other in the city: it is absolutely ubiquitous in public space. Does anyone like this music? Is everyone under the mistaken impression that someone else must like it and therefore that's what we should listen to in stores and bus stations? Do they broadcast the aural version of crack? How can we break these chains and bring modern music to the big apple?

My final example is the only good one: disco skating. You know you've watched them. Parachute pants, floral jeans, big teased bans, fanny packs. Skating on classic or inline wheels in Central Park. To a DJ that may very well be from Cool 101.9. But these people love themselves. And you have to love them right back. They might have come out here everyday since 1980. White and black, gay and straight. People who want to be watched and those alone in their own world, but all of them are lacking 21st century neurotic self-consciousness.

Something about the late 1970s/early 1980s must have sparked all of these cultural mainstays. Maybe it was the city's bankruptcy, rising crime and flight of the middle class to the suburbs. But the message to New Yorkers is clear. It's okay to be uncool. The city has a booming sector of uncoolness and it's easy to get in on the ground floor.


Well, I don't want to disappoint those of you who think I've been camped out in the Bush watching my leg hair grow, but I've been doing some urban traveling lately. A couple weeks ago I was sipping strong coffee in Vienna's museum quarter, watching the sun set slowly behind the buildings and shadows drown cafe patrongs from the ground on up. Wien was a better town than I had imagined; one which has made the most of its opportunities.

Work in Wien was good to me. I saw friends old and new, talked about science, talked about art, saw some opera. Enhaled a couple cartons worth of Gauloise, second hand. Froliced in pagan pre-Easterness.

I'm not sure what else to say about Wien, so I guess I'll let my photos speak for me. flickr