Monday, March 11, 2013

Mainz and lacrosse

Hello friends!

This past Sunday, I went to Mainz, but instead of visiting the Gutenburg museum or any of the other cool sights of Mainz (well, accept for a few that we accidentally drove by on the way home...stupid GPS...), I spent the afternoon in the rain on a sports field on the outskirts of town.  Lacrosse game!  After the semester ended, I started training with the local lacrosse club, the Marburg Saints:

This post is going to be less a blow-by-blow of the game (we lost by a fair amount, but we scored some points and made some good plays)  or anything about our opponents (Mainz is one of the stronger teams in our region, and their coach is an American, who was super nice and even gave our team some pointers during half-time) and more of a pondering on sport and expertness and what makes lacrosse different from all my previous sports.  And fair warning, I forgot my camera, and it was cold and rainly, so there are no pictures.

So, last year when I was teaching at Colgate, I sat through a lecture by Kathy Takayama, a biologist turned education researcher at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.  It was a thought-provoking talk and she was cool, but the thing she said that really stuck with me was describing the difference between "novice" and "expert" audiences.  She used a chess example; the novice chess player looks at a board and sees an array of black and white squares and a ton of pieces of different shapes and, while a novice knows the rules and objectives, has to look at and consider all the pieces.  On the other hand, a chess expert looks at the same board and sees the general pattern and then automatically hones in on the critical pieces in that set-up.  The novice doesn't know enough to tune out the unimportant things.  Now, for teaching, her message was clear; you need to teach in a way that you aren't overloading the novice, making sure that your information is clear and isn't buried in details that you (as an expert in the field) just automatically tuned out.

Now, I haven't been a novice in many things for years and years, but by taking on Lacrosse, I find myself back in novice shoes (and literally, since I'm still playing in running shoes; cleats are expensive and I haven't justified the expense yet).  For those of you who aren't familiar with Lacrosse other than my post back in November, it's both a simple game and quite complicated.  The goal is to use sticks with baskets on the end (your crosses, I think, if you use the US term, or Schläger, in German) to throw a hard rubber ball into a goal as many times as possible, which sounds simple when I put it that way.  BUT handling the ball and stick take a fair bit of skill and  there are all sorts of rules about what you are and aren't allowed to do and there are different positions for players with different rules in effect.  We had 11 field players and a goalie, and 3 are defense, 3 offense, and 5 midfield. There are these lines on the field called restraining lines, and you must always have at least 4 players behind the appropriate restraining line or your team is "off-sides". You may notice, if you do the math, that means that one midfield player has to stay back at any time.  

SO, you can see how many things there are to think about if you're a novice player and have to think about everything: Where is the ball? It's small, and moves fast and you almost have to see it by the body language of the person possessing it instead of actually seeing the ball.  Where do I need to stand to increase my team's ability to maintain control of the ball, or to gain control of the ball from the other team?  If we're defending, where is "my player" and how can I keep them from getting the ball? Are the other team's star players covered right now, or do their defenders need backup? If we're attacking, how can I get clear of "my player" on the other team so that I could catch the ball?  If I do get the ball, who is open for me to throw to?
If the ball is moving across the field, do I need to run really fast to the other end, or do I need to stay on this side of the restraining line?  Is it my turn to rotate out, or can I keep playing?  And on top of that, add in the actual "holding your stick and catching and throwing the ball if it comes to you" which are still not trivial tasks to me.

So I constantly found myself in the novice's dilemma: do I keep the picture of the whole game in my head, and risk losing track of my specific task, or do I just focus on staying with "my player" and then perhaps leave a gap somewhere else on the field that I should have filled?   

Oh yeah, and everything is being discussed and explained in German, adding another level of challenge. It was only a week or so ago that I realized that these cool moves we'd been practicing to get around other players was not some intriguing thing called a "Dutsch" or "Dötsch" but is actually the English word "dodge".  It seems obvious in retrospect.

Remember, I'm used to being an "expert" in bike racing.  I may not have always made the right calls, but I could simultaneously pedal my bike, anticipate cross-winds/hills/course changes, keep track of my teammates and any women on opposing teams that needed careful watching, evaluate any attacks/counterattacks to see if we needed to worry about them and if my team was represented, etc. That's a lot of things, so it's not that different from Lacrosse, the difference is that I was good enough at pedaling my bike that I could keep all those things in my brain at once most of the time, and I'm clearly not there yet for lacrosse after one field game.

I don't want this to come off as whiny.  It's really fun learning something new, and in the midst of feeling generally confused, I totally made a few good moves on Sunday; I made a few good passes and there were moments when I was guarding someone who could have made a great shot otherwise.  And, the other folks on the club are very understanding that I'm a novice, and give helpful advice instead of being mean when I make mistakes.  It's more that I'm thinking like a scientist, and am trying to pinpoint what I need to do to improve. 

Clearly, I need to practice catching and throwing and being more comfortable moving the ball around, but also, I need to play more games so I can start to see the bigger picture and keep that in balance with making sure my piece in the puzzle is locked in.  Sounds like a fun challenge!

AND, my new safety goggles came (, I had them delivered to work, since our mail there is more reliable), so to get in the Lacrosse spirit I think I'll wear them all labmates already thing I'm crazy, so what's to lose?  or...maybe not....

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Austria or bust

Hi friends!

Sasha and I are back from our adventure in the Austrian Alps, and it was fabulous.  We went to Ramsau am Dachstein, a town that I'd been to one autumn back when I was racing and training seriously for skiing, and it was such an awesome trip, I vowed to try to come back some winter. Well, something like 7 years later, I made good on that wish, without the pressure of any training goals.  Instead, our goal was simply to have a great vacation; a much simpler goal and one that would be very hard -not- to reach in Austria.

So, as far as I can gather, the creative forces in the universe that led to the creation of Austria must have thought something like "let's make a country that is really nice." The place is full of gorgeous mountains and cozy valleys, and in the winter, it seems to turn itself into one big ski resort. (OK, so a Brit we met on a mountain top said, you think that here, go to Switzerland, Switzerland really is one big ski resort.  He may be right, but that doesn't stop Austria from being pretty darn awesome).  And, it's civilized. Everytime you start to get thirsty or hungry, there's some hut or restaurant, etc. just waiting to feed you.

We left mid-day last Friday, and drove through snowstorm and nonstop heavy traffic (Sasha drove, I still can't drive a manual) and despite some brief worries due to inabilities to get through by telephone to our pension, made it safely down and checked in (Pension G'senger; good price and great location and ski/wax room in the basement with an ex pro-nordic skier as one of the owners, actually) and went to bed.  A word for anyone planning on driving to Austria from Germany, you need a special toll sticker to drive on their Autobahns.  Luckily, I learned this from a hiking trip this past August, because otherwise, we would have had no clue.  While there aren't frequent checks, so we could have gotten by without one, if you do get caught, I think the fine is quite stiff.  But, we got our sticker and got a spare reflective vest, too, since they also are required (if your car breaks down on any highway, only people wearing reflective vests are allowed to get out of the vehicle. A sensible rule, actually).

Since we reached the mountains at night while it was snowing, Sasha had no idea what awaited him the next morning, so he spent most of our first ski going "wow, this is so awesome". 
Snow! Mountains! Skiing! What else do you need for awesomeness?

Because, well, it was awesome. The mountains are gorgeous, and there are a hundred + km of trails and the grooming is outstanding.
 And he also spent much of our first ski falling. 

He asked if he got bonus points since the waterbottle made that many skips. I think, yes.
He got better over the course of our trip. Well, somewhat better.
Day 3...look at that distance!
I could paste in dozens of pictures of beautiful mountains and impeccably groomed tracks, but, well, I don't want to make you all hate me.  Instead, I'm aiming for showing you just enough to make you want to come out and visit!

Well, when we started to get a bit hungry, we took a break for some strudel (Sasha eating apfelstrudel on the left, a plate of topfenstrudel on the right) or soup or some such warm and satisfying snack, and when the sun went down, we went to a restaurant recommended by the innkeepers for dinner. No bad meal in the bunch.

The best day of the trip was probably day 3.  Days 1 and 2 were snowy, and while we had views of the mountains on and off, there were plenty of moments when we could have been in Northern Wisconsin (albeit one where everyone you pass is speaking some European language, and there are opportunities for goat petting or schnaps drinking along the trail).
Goats!! They're almost as good as sheep!
The sign says "self service"

Day 3, however, was sunny as can be, and so we took the gondola up from the neighboring town Filzmoos, and skied on a beautiful trail on top of a mountain. 
Forget about Eden, this seems like paradise to me. That's Sasha in the mid-ground, proving that he did spend most of the trip upright.
Many a summit in Austria has a cross on it.
The text says, "Lord God, our homeland is pretty"  
From the high point on the trail, we had a 360 degree view of the mountains, and even way up there, there was an "Alm" hut, at which we could stop for hot cocoa and cake. Although fewer food choices than in the valley.  Not surprising, given what it took to get the food and drink up there in the first place. 

In case you think it was all sunshine and skiing, there was one worrisome moment (evening of day 2) when we were worried that dinner might need to be Wasa bread and gouda since it seemed like we might not be able to get the car up the snowy side-road that our pension was on, but with some careful driving by Sasha and some serious pushing by me, we were able to get out and buy some yummy pasta dinners, afterall.  Which, really, is not a bad "worst part" as trips go. 

Well, I'll probably post again later with pictures from our birding stop on the way home, etc. but for now, I'll leave you with a final thought.  If the buddhists/hindus have it right, and instead of one life we keep getting reincarnated, I hope this: if I was a little good, I'd like to come back as an Austrian.  Such a nice country.  If I was naughty, perhaps I could come back as an Austrian pig; I've never heard of free-range pigs, but they do taste pretty delicious.  And if I'm really, really good, then I hope I get to be an Austrian sheep or goat.  You get to be adorable and fuzzy and you spend the winter snugly nestled in gorgeous valleys and all summer frolicking in the mountains.  Lovely, lovely mountains.