Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lost in the Wild

by Conroy

Rescue helicopter in action
A couple of days ago my girlfriend and I decided to take advantage of the holiday weekend and warm weather with a long hike. I chose a well-regarded but lightly trafficked trail (according to the on-line guide) on the western portion of Liberty Reservoir. All was well until my usually reliable sense of direction failed me and I picked a wrong fork, leading us on a circuitous and incorrect loop. 40 minutes later, and much to my girlfriend's consternation, we ended up back at the same fork. At least we didn't have to backtrack, or so I optimistically noted. Further on, and with wet feet after an improvised stream crossing, we faced another choice, go straight or turn right. I chose straight - wrong again - and we ended up staring across 200 yards of water at the bridge where our car was parked. Rather than backtrack 20 minutes up a steep hill to the other path, I suggested we bushwhack around the reservoir and pick up the trail nearer the end. My girlfriend had moved on from irritated to miserable and I faced a mutiny. We backtracked, and the rest of the decisions on the hike were made more democratically. We (or I) were saved from any other wrong turns by following two hikers, clearly familiar with the correct path, that we spotted about a hundred yards ahead of us on the trail.

What should have been a two-and-a-half hour hike lasted closer to four hours. We had wet feet and I had an angry girlfriend, but we made it out and my mistakes were pretty quickly forgiven (I think). Fortunately, we were hiking in suburban Baltimore, and we were never in any danger. My cell phone had coverage, and we were never more than a mile from houses and roads. Still, I had silly visions of us lost, going in circles, being trapped by darkness. These thoughts led me to ponder something that has bugged me for years: people getting lost and rescued from the wild.


You hear stories in the news about hikers being rescued after getting lost, climbers never found after long searches, or sailors rescued from adrift sailboats. These stories get plenty of coverage because of the dramatic aspect of people lost and time running out for a successful rescue. The adventure and tension draws people in. However, should these types of search-and-rescue missions even be launched? At times I've felt, perhaps hardheartedly, no. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Say it Aint So

by Conroy

Armstrong celebrating 7 Tour victories - were they all legitimate?
Lance Armstrong is one of the most successful athletes in history. After recovering from near fatal testicular cancer, he won the Tour de France, by far the most visible and prestigious (and rigorous) cycling stage race, a record seven times in consecutive years from 1999 through 2005. In the process, he rose to international fame, and became a hero and inspiration to many, including this blogger. Along with his rising fame came an impressive growth in the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which has raised awareness for cancer, provided support for survivors, and raised more than $300 million for cancer research. This impressive legacy may soon be severely tarnished.

As reported this past week in several articles and tonight on the weekly news show 60 Minutes, yet another series of accusations has been leveled at Armstrong by one of his former teammates. Tyler Hamilton claims that Armstrong cheated, doped in cycling lingo, by using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to win at least some of his "Tours". Armstrong has denied these claims. Hamilton's accusations are just the latest in a long list.

Almost from the conclusion of his first Tour victory in 1999, there were whispers that Armstrong's performance was "unnatural". After all, he was less than two years removed from intensive cancer treatments, including chemotherapy. When he returned he was physically different, thinner but an immensely strong climber and a powerful time trial-er. Some, especially among the cycling community in France, thought the story was too good to be true. Through his following Tour wins, the suspicions continued. Armstrong worked with Italian trainer Michele Ferrari through 2004, who was connected to distributing banned substances to riders. Armstrong denied any knowledge of these activities. After his final Tour victory in 2005, allegations were circulated that frozen "B" samples of urine from the 1999 Tour, supposedly matching Armstrong's rider code, tested positive for the EPO, which ups red blood cell production (and therefore increases aerobic performance). Questions over the chain of custody in the intervening years and the fact that "B" samples are meaningless without the corresponding "A" samples, which were disposed of after 1999, lessened the impact of these allegations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where to Travel Next?

by Conroy

The breathtaking Amalfi Coast of Italy
With summer almost here, my girlfriend and I are discussing vacation options. In addition to a few near-by short-term trips already planned, we both want to go somewhere far away and new to us. That led me to thinking more constructively about all of the places that I want to go. I’ve thought about these vacations before, some many times, but never actually put them down in writing. And let’s be honest, with the breadth of places that I want to visit and the scope of some of the trips, it’s going to take a well-thought-through plan to make it happen. I’m not fortunate enough to have an unlimited travel budget or endless vacation days, so I have to be smart in prioritizing my list and combining destinations if possible. 

I’m sure this will be an evolving process, but the first step is to list where I want to go and what I want to see. Below is that list, with destinations grouped into potential one to two-week vacations. For completeness I’ve also listed the places that I’ve already visited. After all, you can’t know where to go next unless you understand where you’ve been. Also, the list is of places and not events. I’m sure it would be unique to say, go to the Tour de France, but I don’t think I’d travel for that purpose alone.

Travel and Adventure
A quick aside. I know many people who are indifferent to travel, or at least travel to distant or foreign destinations. Not me. I find the experience of big vacations to be a great adventure. Thinking about vacations is enjoyable, the planning and anticipation leading up to the trip even more fun, and actually going is great.

If you feel the same way, do you ever ask yourself why traveling is so exhilarating? I can give two reasons. First, the world is big and fascinating (I hope readers of this blog know this perspective of mine by now). I read so much in books, magazines, and other writings about the world’s histories and cultures. I see places and events in television, films, and photographs. This stimulates my interest. I want to take the next step and travel to what I read about and see in media; to be surrounded by a new place. On previous vacations I’ve found myself giddy with excitement when I first arrive, so eager to start exploring.

The Cobb at Lyme Regis with the Undercliff in the background
A good example: several years ago I vacationed in London but made a special point to take a side trip to Lyme Regis, a small town in Dorset on the English Channel coast. Why go there? Well it was the setting of one of my favorite novels, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and home to book’s author, the great John Fowles. The book and writer drew me in; I wanted to see it for myself. I went to Fowles’ house – this was a year before his death – though he didn’t like visitors so I merely strolled by, walked out onto the Cobb that features prominently in the 1981 film adaptation, and meandered back in the Undercliff wooded preserve above the town where much of the critical action takes place. It was a very worthwhile and enjoyable trip and subsequent readings of the novel have been enhanced as a result.

The second reason, and harder to articulate, is what I term the places the haunt me. I use the term in the context of being captivated not scarred. For whatever reason, some places captured my imagination in a deep and visceral way when I was young. There’s more to this than just travel, and I’ll write broadly about what I mean in a future post, but a good example is Australia. Even since I was very young I wanted to go down under. I did in 2006, and Sydney, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, the landscapes, and people were all that I thought they would be.

Where are the places you would like to visit and why? What would you like to see and experience in person? What places “haunt” you?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hope and Disappointment

by Conroy

Forgive me some philosophical musings, but a couple of recent events have rekindled a line of thinking.

[Note an important caveat, the following post is based mostly on my thoughts and observations, not from my experience. This is a critical distinction.]

Ten days ago, to modest fanfare, Prince William, the future King of England, married Kate Middleton. Yesterday, another celebrity couple's marriage all but ended when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced their separation. They have been married for 25 years.

On reading the news today, I couldn't help but contrast these two marriages because it brings up a central dilemma that has dominated my adult thinking: how can you be sure that a marriage will succeed? I've never been married, so I can't attempt to answer that question. And I won't write about what I don't know. Instead, think about all the hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding.

I'm sure much of the attention in Britain and the rest of the world is the result of the princess/fairy tale nature of this type of (rare) wedding, but that aside, in many ways this event differs only in scale from most other weddings. After all, weddings are accompanied by large celebrations. Perhaps the largest celebrations the bride and groom will ever experience. I see weddings as an occasion for celebration because the wedding, representing the marriage, is a great symbol of hope. As I've written before, hope is that intrinsic human ability to see better for the future. Marriage at it's core is about hope. The belief that you have found lasting love, happiness, and companionship in someone else. That there is someone you can share your life with. That your marriage will succeed.

Divorce is the opposite; a disappointment, indeed the greatest of disappointments.The realization that love, happiness, companionship do not last forever. I choose my words carefully here, divorce isn't the greatest tragedy, worse things can happen, the death of a loved one for instance, but I doubt anything can ever be as disappointing.

I find it deeply unsettling that such antithetical perspectives, the highest hope and the deepest disappointment, are so intimately attached to marriage. Most of the people we know are, have been, or will be married at some point. And we all know marriages that have failed. What does this teach us? What guarantees are there that a happy wedding day won't lead to a discouraging split? Surely, relationships are doomed without dedication, work, loyalty, trust, and many other similar behaviors and attitudes. But is that enough?

By most estimates,  somewhere between 40% and half of American marriages end in divorce. One could reasonably assume that a sizable proportion (10-20%?) of those marriages that don't end in divorce would be described by one or both spouses as unsatisfying for one reason or another. So half or more of marriages fail. That's a depressing statistic.


Nevertheless, I'll get married. I have hope that marriage can succeed (I only have to look to my parents for the finest exemplar of marital achievement). The same hope that captivated the world watching William and Kate. Disappointments like divorce are part of life, but they can't, and more accurately, they won't stop us from reaching for the better.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Long Time Coming

by Conroy

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden, terrorist and mass murderer, was killed in a targeted raid by American Special Forces at a compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. To quote President Obama, "justice was done." It was, and it was a long time coming.

The death of bin Laden at the hands of American soldiers is a huge event, and in the past two days the coverage has been expansive. There will undoubtedly be exhaustive talk in the days and weeks ahead about the affects on Al Qaeda, the larger fight against terror, reactions in the Middle East and the rest of the world. I'm not a foreign affairs expert, and I won't pretend to have any special insights into what this event means, but I do feel compelled to share some of my initial thoughts:
  •  America has waited almost ten years for this result. I remember clearly thinking in the weeks, months, and then years after 9/11 that bin Laden must surely be found and brought to justice. But so very frustratingly, he wasn't. When the news broke on Sunday I was shocked. After all this time the thought of finding bin Laden, let alone swiftly eliminating him, had faded from my mind. I doubt my reaction was unique. I was gratified but not overjoyed by the news. Again, I doubt my reaction was unique.
  • I'm glad that bin Laden was killed outright in this operation. I hate the thought of a long public trial where bin Laden may have been afforded a venue to preach to his followers and continue his "holy war" against the United States and the Western World. Further, I'm glad his body was buried at sea, leaving no martyr's grave site.
  • As always with shadowy missions like this, there has been doubt or skepticism expressed by some about the authenticity of bin Laden's death. Some want more proof than has so far been provided. Perhaps additional documentation will become available, but there is no doubt that the operation and results are authentic and have been thoroughly verified.
  • Isn't truth more remarkable than fiction? This operation was something out of a movie, a long-term CIA intelligence mission resulting a highly precise operation against the world's most wanted man carried out by an ultra elite unit of special forces soldiers. The culminating events followed in real-time by high ranking military and civilian leaders half-a-world away. This story must be made into a movie. I hope that if it is, the filmmakers stick to the facts; I guarantee it would make for fascinating viewing.
  • I find it highly suspicious that our "allies" in Pakistan were entirely unaware of the bin Laden living in a large mansion, in a sizable city, in the immediate vicinity of the Pakistan Military Academy, and only 30 miles from that nation's capital, Islamabad. I doubt my suspicions are unfounded.
  • Someone will take over the leadership of Al Qaeda. Perhaps that person, or persons, will be a capable, motivated leader. I hope not. I hope that Al Qaeda will prove to be irrevocably undermined by the demise of bin Laden. I hope dispatching the most visible face of international terrorism will dampen the energy that fuels the hatred, violence, and destruction that the civilized world despises. I hope this is another in a long series of successes in the War on Terror.