Tough Mudder

I read some think pieces about obstacle course races. They ask, why are people willing to spend $100+ to put themselves through pain for a few hours? Some say with modern, sterile, white-collar office jobs, people are not in tune with their bodies. They seek danger and excitement, and want to test their physical abilities. Anyway, I signed up because some computer science graduate students wanted to form a team, and I thought, “Sure, why not? I’ve never done one before.”

Before the race started, the MC gave a motivational speech. The gist of the speech was, Tough Mudder is not just a race, it’s a lifestyle and commitment to fitness. We all took a knee, not just the people from my school, but everyone, because we were all on the same team. We would help each other, perfect strangers, get through the race. It felt rather cultish. They played the Star-Spangled Banner. A man covered in tattoos exuberantly signed during the anthem.

It was raining, so the muddy course was even muddier. In addition, our team had a late start time, so the course was beaten down and slippery from all the previous racers. Despite running most of the time, I was numb from cold.

For the first obstacle, we had to army crawl through mud under barbed wire. I thought this was a suitable choice for the first obstacle, because it made me have no qualms about getting dirty the rest of the race. On the downside, it became harder to recognize my teammates, since everyone was covered in mud from head to toe.

I would describe most obstacles as people pulling me up and over things. I was pulled over a vertical wall, a rope wall, a curved wall, a human ladder, and multiple elevated banks while wading in water. I would not have been able to complete the race on my own. Some obstacles were not really obstacles. For example, one “obstacle” was running up and down a hill several times. Another “obstacle” was swimming across part of a lake. My favorite obstacle was “Block Ness Monster,” which consisted of large rectangular prisms in water. We had to work together to rotate and go over the prisms.

After the race, I couldn’t wait to shower and never do that again. But I know that time will soften the memories of hypothermia with a nostalgic glow, and in a moment of idiocy I will sign up for another obstacle course race, because “Sure, why not? Obstacle course races are fun.”

Portland

I was in Vancouver, WA for a work conference and hackathon, which the team did quite well in. The Vancouver office has all the comforting trappings of suburbia within one block: a Whole Foods, Target, Chipotle.

We explored Portland again. We compared several local donut shops, all delicious. We biked along the waterfront and along the Tilikum Crossing bridge. We sat at Poet’s Beach. We wandered through Powell’s Books, the largest bookstore I’ve ever seen. We rode the aerial tram to the top of a hill.

Aerial tram
Aerial tram

We ambled through the Japanese garden and the rose garden. J ran down a grassy hill. Unbeknown to him, there was deep mud, and he got covered from his shoes to his neck.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden
Rose garden
Rose garden

We went to Mt. St. Helens, and the winding mountain road was a true joy for me to drive. Everything flowed effortlessly from mind to steering wheel to pavement. We took a break at the Forest Learning Center. The force of the 1980 eruption generated shock waves that shattered tree trunks. There was a mad dash by logging companies to salvage as much wood as possible.

Mt. St. Helens
Mt. St. Helens

Next we visited the Johnston Observatory, named after the geologist who was a proponent of keeping the mountain closed to keep the public safe in the days leading up to the eruption. He was caught in the blast, and his famous last words were “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” We entered an auditorium to watch a video about the eruption. In front of us was a vibrant red curtain. A projector screen descended in front of the curtain, and the movie began playing, with its dated transitions and double-vision effects. There were a number of point of view shots of tumbling down the mountain, as though we, the audience, were a landslide. At the conclusion of the video, the curtains lifted, and through the floor-to-ceiling window, we beheld the grandeur of Mt. St. Helens with half its face blown off. We braved the sun and 90+ degree temperatures for as long as we could, hiking along the Boundary Trail. The path was completely exposed, just dust, wildflowers, and the towering volcano.

Houston

Houston is stiflingly hot and humid in the summer. The city is sprawling, like Los Angeles but without Hollywood. The public transportation is lacking, so I need to drive 40 minutes to travel to a different place in Houston. Also, drivers here rarely use turn signals and drift out of their lanes. The good news is, there is ample parking everywhere. Property is plentiful and cheap. And the city is surprisingly green.

I’ve biked around downtown, Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou. I’ve surveyed downtown from the tops of different skyscrapers, ate at local favorites. And I’ve visited local attractions, both popular and obscure. Here’s my thoughts on them.

Menil Collection

The Broken Obelisk
The Broken Obelisk

The main gallery is closed this year. We visited the satellite buildings, which featured works by modern artists that I am not particularly fond of. There are so many artists with more talent, but less fame.

First up was an uninspired neon light installation by Dan Flavin.

Next, we visited the Rothko Chapel, a dark, moody, octagonal space. The walls had Rothko paintings, and in typical Rothko style, the canvas was completely covered with black paint and nothing else. I’m sure someone would tell me to notice the different strokes and depths, the hypnotic effect of staring into a monocolor canvas. But to me, this is grasping for enlightenment where there is none.

Another gallery featured the works of Cy Twombly. There were large canvases of blank space and blotches of color overlain with moody poetry.

My favorite gallery was the Fabiola room, renditions of the same portrait of a shawled woman done by different artists, some amateurs, some experienced. The media varied: acrylic, beads, wood carving, stained glass.

The Houston Zoo

Houston Zoo caterpillar
Houston Zoo caterpillar

The Houston Zoo brought out my inner child. There were elephants caking their sensitive skin in mud. Warthogs frolicked by a stream. Indoor spaces brought the sweet relief of air conditioning.

The most exciting event at the zoo was a spontaneous, violent episode. A bird flew into the bobcat’s cage. The bobcat pounced, rendering the bird unable to fly. When the bird flailed or twitched, the bobcat would swat at it.

Downtown Aquarium

The aquarium is by far the most depressing place in Houston. Huge fish are in comically small tanks. There’s no room for the fish to swim, so they just hover in place. The eels coil themselves because the tanks are too small to fully stretch. Perplexingly, at the end of the linear aquarium route, there is a white tiger. But there’s nothing natural in its enclosure– no grass, no dirt, just concrete, stone, and a wading pool.

Space Center

NASA Mission Control
NASA Mission Control

I took a tour of NASA’s campus. They raise Texas longhorns on their property. There are bikes scattered about that any employee can use. I saw Mission Control, where staff famously heard the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” The docent gave a rousing speech on the historical significance of Mission Control and the importance of space travel.

There is a replica of the shuttle, Independence, and the oversize plane used to transport it.

Saturn V rocket
Saturn V rocket

In the Rocket Park, the ginormous Saturn V rocket is housed.

Kemah Boardwalk

At the boardwalk, lanky birds dive-bombed into the water. There was an amusement park. I rode the train, a dizzying spinning ride, the ferris wheel. I sat in the backseat on one of those rides that swings back-and-forth like a pendulum. Whenever the carriage swung backwards so that we were perpendicular to the ground, I felt as though I would fall out.

Museum of Natural Science

Museum of Natural Science
Museum of Natural Science

The museum was new, well-lit, superbly staged. The highlight for me was the prehistoric sloth, larger and stronger than a bear, able to fling a saber-toothed tiger with its massive arms. Its skeleton towered over me. What a contrast to modern-day sloths!

There was a pendulum that kept the time. Blocks surrounded the pendulum in a circle. After minutes of teasing the audience with near-misses, a block was knocked over, and everyone cheered.

Given all the local oil companies, there was a floor dedicated to energy and resources extraction, featuring immersive rides and projections. Information is presented without political commentary; for example, one display explains how fracking works with no mention of any controversy.

The Health Museum

The current exhibition features interactive art pieces on sound and the body. For example, there was a bed with speakers embedded in it. Anyone lying in the bed would feel the deep bass vibrating through their bones.

Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum had a large collection of classical European and Asian art. There was a two-story bamboo structure that looked like a giant nest. People could walk through it, though traffic was rather slow on account of all the septuagenarians taking selfies.

The hall connecting the two buildings had an installation by my favorite artist, James Turrell, who used light to create the illusion of walls where there were none.

Sculpture Garden

View from Glassell School of Art, with Cloud Column below
View from Glassell School of Art, with Cloud Column below

The sculpture garden had an upper area that afforded a view of the surrounding blocks. Among the sculptures was a mirrored bean, Cloud Column, also by Anish Kapoor who made Chicago’s Cloud Gate. But Houston’s bean is vertical, raised on a pedestal, smaller, and less amenable to taking selfies, so that’s probably why I had never heard of it.

Contemporary Arts Museum

I was not particular impressed by the current exhibitions. There were canvasses with cheeky phrases painted on them, such as a row of paintings that each said “stop copying me.”

Buffalo Bayou

I biked along the bayou, and I could not help but smile at a duck speed-waddling towards me on the trail. Instead of mallard ducks, there are muscovy ducks, black and white-bodied with red bills. The strangely colored ducks are another reminder that I’m in the South.

Buffalo Bayou Cistern

Buffalo Bayou Park cistern
Buffalo Bayou Park cistern

The cistern was an underground water reservoir. Now the dark, moody space is used for art shows. When the perimeter lighting is shut off, the water is a perfect mirror, so that it appears the pillars are stacked on top of the reflected pillars. When we let out a yell, the echo reverberated for about 15 seconds.

The current art exhibit by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Spatial Chromointerference, felt absolutely surreal. The artist projected colors and stripes. White cubes floated in the water.

Carlos Cruz-Diez at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern: Spatial Chromointerference
Carlos Cruz-Diez at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern: Spatial Chromointerference

The Galleria

Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park
Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park

The Galleria is an upscale mall. At night, the palm trees lining the roads are lit with Christmas lights, and the gentrified neighborhood makes me feel like I’m back in California.

Art Car Museum

Art Car Museum
Art Car Museum

Elaborately decorated cars are on display in the museum, on loan from the artists. The cars are fully functional, and covered in all kinds of flea-market finds.

cat car
cat car

Austin

I visited Austin over the weekend. It was 100°F and sunny, so we were indoors most of the time, playing board games and video games. Austin is small and walkable, with good public transportation and great food. Despite a booming population, the city has retained its distinct personality and the buildings have non-uniform architectural styles.

On an early morning, before the sun and the heat, I biked around the UT-Austin campus and downtown. The roads were completely empty. We saw the state capitol building, a beautiful domed red granite building, surrounded by sculpture gardens.

I walked along Lady Bird Lake, where turtles and herons sunbathed on logs. We caught a sunset on Mount Bonnell, overlooking the Colorado River.

Pittsburgh part 4

PPG Paints Arena

Center ice at PPG Paints Arena
Center ice at PPG Paints Arena

I watched the Penguins play the Devils, and I was ambivalent about the victor. Jaromir Jagr was my favorite player growing up, and he played for the Penguins during my formative years. Up until college, I would always pick his number, 68, for my own ice hockey jerseys. But I also lived in NJ, so I was partial to the Devils.

For the Penguins’ home games, the stadium is always packed. There’s something special, sitting with a beer in hand, watching the best athletes compete alongside 20,000 other spectators. I was filled with strong feelings of patriotism.

Penguins locker room
Penguins locker room

There’s no checking in women’s ice hockey, and with all the equipment we had to wear, I felt completely safe. I could trip backwards on my head and get up like it was nothing. But certainly, the men’s side is a different story, and colliding against the rigid walls could cause injuries. I was working on a project to make ice hockey safer, and learned that the pro players are superstitious, reluctant to change to newer, safer gear. Hanging on the wall was Crosby’s ratty jock that he must have been using since junior league. No one is allowed to step on the logo in the middle of the floor, and it is pristine. Remarkably, in spite of all the gear being aired out, the Penguins’ locker room is odor-free thanks to a state-of-the-art ventilation system.

Senator John Heinz History Center

Heinz bottle made of Heinz bottles
Heinz bottle made of Heinz bottles

The Heinz Museum covers the history of Pittsburgh, from George Washington’s skirmishes in the French and Indian War to modern times. Each floor has a particular theme. One floor is dedicated to Pittsburgh’s thriving sports franchises. Another is about how Pittsburgh is a city of innovation (and about the history of the Heinz ketchup company).

There is also a rotating exhibit on the lower floor, currently about Prohibition. There was some disagreement as to whether the liquor laws ought to be enforced by the federal government or at the local level, plus there were loopholes in the law. So as a result of poor enforcement and the rise of organized crime surrounding the distribution of illicit alcohol, Prohibition was repealed. Post-Prohibition, annual consumption of liquor sharply decreased, and has remained low ever since (compared to pre-Prohibition levels).

Carnegie Museum of Science

The Carnegie Museum of Science has exhibits on space exploration, water, robots, the human body. The museum is geared towards families with small children, so the information on the posters are at an introductory level. The highlight for me was a robot that threw free throws with a 90% accuracy, which was smoking the 10% accuracy of its human opponents. After each throw, the giant robotic arm would bob up and down, as if doing a victory dance.

USS Requin
USS Requin

Outside the museum, a submarine is docked. Its halls are tight and claustrophobic. All furniture was smaller, as if built for dwarves. I was impressed that 80 seamen could live there for extended tours.

The Frick Museum

There are several buildings on the Frick property, located on the north end of Frick Park. There is a sleek and well-lit car and carriage museum, a greenhouse, Frick’s residence, Clayton, and the art museum. The art museum is modestly sized. There was a temporary exhibition featuring paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas’ ballet dancer sculpture.