Friday, August 1, 2014

Colorado report

I have just finished spending most of July at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado as a visiting researcher focusing on the Remote Community Renewable Energy program. The concept is to develop more generic, modular, scalable solutions to renewable energy integration into small islanded power grids, instead of custom designing each system from scratch, as Alaskan villages tend to do at present. The idea is that with Alaska as a first deployment ground, the concept of modular, scalable renewable energy systems could apply in other islanded microgrids that would benefit from integration of more renewable power.

Since it was an entire month, I elected to drive down and have my old ladies Autumn and Linden spend the month with me. DL accompanied us as sort of an AlCan vacation, then flew home. Starbuck spent the month at her old kennel, where her former musher reported that she missed us. We missed her, too. :( But at her young and active age, she could probably not acclimate well to long road trips or city life. Autumn and Linden seemed to take it all in stride, even the Southerly reaches of the AlCan, when our pee breaks became walks around gas stations. They thought that that was just grand, too, even as much so as lunch breaks like these:

And they sleep as well in hotels as they do in tents or at home:

And for the first time in my life, I saw the other end of the AlCan:

We got a short-term rental in a finished basement, which was perfect as it stayed cool in the heat. Autumn and Linden spent their daytimes snoozing in the corner of my room, separated by a gate from this thing:

who constantly whined to join them and us. I felt bad that she clearly enjoyed our company, but I just could not deal with her whining and drooling and wiggling her butt in my face. And her tongue! It was a biological weapon! She kept flinging it around attempting to slap us with it! I said, "Thank you kindly, but I would like to decline this honor."

I also took the liberty of doing city-things and Lower-48-things, such as eating peaches, attending the Colorado Symphony, eating pho, and shopping at hippie stores and eating sprouted 17-grain tofu bread and organic ginger snaps and buying recycled cardboard toilet paper that feels like sandpaper.

Okay enough of that. Here are my Colorado observations. A lot of them probably apply to non-Northern cities in general.

1) Living in a city or a suburb is very convenient if you like to buy things. You can buy lots of things, very easily. You can even buy things from absolutely identical stores two miles apart. However, it's not so convenient if you like to take walks. Cars whoosh back and forth. Strange dogs bark at you from behind fences. People look at you from their windows. You dodge traffic. Your own dogs have to be on-leash at all times, and you have to pick up their poop (or risk a $999 fine and/or a 180-day jail sentence!!)

2) Having dogs in a city is an actual chore. Now I see why city dogs are so beloved by their owners. It's selection bias. In cities, only people who really love dogs have dogs, because the dogs contribute nothing and literally exist only to be taken care of. In Alaska, my dogs have hauled around my snow testing equipment for my thesis work, broken trail for me when skiing, guided me down the safest trails when hiking/skiing, served as warnings against wild animals, killed pest animals, defended me against aggressive other-dogs, and guided me home when I was lost. After only a few days in the Denver area, I could see that they had pretty much nothing to contribute to my urban life, and that walking them (leashed! and picking up poop the whole way!) had become a chore rather than a pleasure. I didn't love them any less, but I could see that had I been a "city person" my relationship with them would have been entirely different. Rather than being my companions, equal in contributions to the household, they would have been "pet" creatures, living only to be indulged. I could see why city people refer to their pets as "their children" or their "furry babies". The pets are pampered, petted, and thusly infantilized. I could understand suddenly and viscerally why my sister discouraged me from getting Autumn and Linden way back when. Having only lived in a city, all she could see that a dog could contribute to a household was additional expense and work for me. Nevertheless, everyone around there seemed to have dogs, in quantities comparable to Alaskans! I'm talking 4/5 of houses having dogs barking in their yards, with 2-3 dogs a piece! All barking and wagging their tails as we walked by.

3) People hardly eat anything, what they eat is super healthy, and I was hungry 80% of my waking hours. Eventually I was prompted to google, and discovered that "Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation..." Well, I can see why! A typical plate lunch at the NREL cafeteria was a single block of tofu that could fit in the palm of my hand, on a scoop of brown rice, with a small pile of steamed carrots. It was nutritious and delicious--with a peanut sauce that was definitely Asian-influenced--but I could have eaten two of those plates! I staggered back to my guest office with my stomach still pinching with hunger, and snarfed down the emergency Clif bar out of my purse when no one was looking. Even the pho was noticeably different--with lean cuts of meat, no fat floating in the soup, no MSG, and very little salt, even by my own low-salt standards. I'm sure Colorado is a very healthy place to live, since calorie restriction is supposed to be good for you! I'm not sure how people live with the stomach pains and the grumpiness, though!

4) It was fricken DARK at night! I am unaccustomed to darkness without snow, which reflects and scatters ambient light and light from my headlamp. In Colorado, my headlamp seemed pure worthless.

5) It was fricken HOT! The high was about 90F/32C every day. I got up at 5 every morning to run Autumn and Linden before the sun got too high.

6) The upsides: NO mosquitoes! And--since the sun goes down, it cools down at night!

7) Coloradans intimidated me. It was not easy to follow all of the social rules. Both the Sili Valley and Fairbanks are extraordinarily forgiving of weirdness and clumsiness; I probably have never learned to act in a way that the rest of the world would consider normal. My friend and colleague from home, H, completely understood when I gchatted her wailing about it. "Yeah, I totally hear you. I have that problem all the time down there. Everything just feels really weird and I am sure I violate conventions all the time." My first encounter with this was at the dog park. Everyone was super friendly, both humans and dogs, and the dog park there is so pleasant--not a crap-filled arena like in other cities, more like a small network of hiking trails that happens to allow off-leash dogs. Anyway, after I had climbed up a small hill, I found myself alone (with just Autumn and Linden) and needing to pee. Could I just squat and pee out here, or did I have to walk back to the parking lot outhouse? I had no idea. The other women were wearing makeup. Are makeup-wearing and outdoor-peeing mutually exclusive? I had no idea. I finally peed, but *really* hoped that no one saw me, even from a distance. Another time I was sitting in my office in the morning, and took a sip of tea from my travel mug. Tea had worked its way up the teabag string via capillary action, and dripped dark brown dribbles all over my white T-shirt. I was mortified! If this were to happen at home, I'd shout at H over the cubicle wall, "ARGH! I have tea on my shirt!" and she'd laugh. I could go about my day, even to "important" meetings, and my other colleagues, up to and including my boss and the dean, would not have batted an eye. In Colorado I was absolutely mortified.

8) I joined a few services of Christ the King Episcopal Church and made the following observations in contrast to St. Matthews:
i) The Arvada church is clean, modern, spacious, and tastefully decorated. Ours is a 50+ years-old log building with the altar cluttered with standard Fairbanks detritus and an ostrich egg.
ii) In the Arvada church, the bathroom is laid out such that you can pee, wash your hands, and get out of the door without having to smoosh someone else and defy Pauli's Exclusion Principle.
iii) I was not publicly introduced to the congregation as a visitor, and I was not given a gift of SPAM.
iv) Coloradans say things that we Alaskans sing. Such as, "Glory to God in the hi-igh-est and peee-eeee-eeeace to His people on earth!" I missed that.
v) No services are offered in Gwich'in. The songbook also has no Gwich'in songs.
vi) Pretty much no one has the charisma of Father Scott.

I guess that's all for now. AlCan photos to follow!

1 comment:

gina said...

Those are some interesting differences. I can see why you (and your girls) prefer Alaska !