Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Inventive Improvisations

It's the beginning of Austral Summer and I'm once again headed down to the South Pole Station for work on the South Pole Telescope. This time I'm going for the whole season - November through mid-February. I'm writing this blog entry on the Qantas flight to New Zealand, and it still doesn't quite feel real yet. I have already met up with quite a few others who are headed down to pole, including some friends from last year. This time, I know what to expect from the experience and my approach to everything - packing, travel, expectations - has been tuned based on the experiences from last year. Even so, it's been a long eight months back in Chicago and there is nothing commonplace or ordinary about this trip, even if parts of it now feel familiar.

A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed about SPT for a planetarium program showing in Kalamazoo, Michigan sometime next spring. Out of all of the questions, there was only one that I had a hard time answering. Roughly, the question went: "What was the most inventive improvisation you saw in the lab while you were at the South Pole?"

On the surface, this is a really straightforward question. Since it is very difficult to get equipment shipped to the South Pole (and the equipment you manage to obtain often fails in unexpected ways), any major project at the South Pole Station must be full of funny little improvised patches, last-minute work-arounds, and creative rearrangements. Yet, I had a hard time answering it. First of all, our project manager Steve Padin did such an exceptional job planning and orchestrating the deployment of our telescope that there were spares and back-up solutions readily available...not to mention that most of the parts of the telescope went together and worked well the first time - a remarkable achievement. Also, my work at the pole last season involved a lot of scrambling to write software, so I might not have been as aware of the creative problem solving that went into the hardware. But even had I been, "creative problem solving" (a.k.a. kludging) is so commonplace in the laboratories back in Chicago that the lab at the South Pole can seem pristine and orderly in comparison. In the laboratories I normally work in, we're constantly grabbing for a strip of duct tape or a stretch of rubber hose or some other quick fix to an immediate problem. Much more planning goes into working within the tight constraints of the South Pole, and our first season with the SPT went for the most part quite smoothly.

However, I wasn't really thinking any of this when I was asked that question. I was thinking, instead, that the most inventive improvisations I saw at pole weren't in the laboratory. They were in the social lives of a group of people crammed together in a remote station at the end of the earth. What do you do with your time, when you're away from all of your normal pursuits, isolated from media and culture, with limited internet access and absolutely no place to go? Of all of the things that amazed me about the experience of going to the South Pole for the first time, witnessing the creative social environment was one of the things I most enjoyed.

Of course, people get together and watch movies and share a few beers, as you'd expect. But what you might not expect are the extensive film and photography projects, the ice sculptures, the costume parties, and the level of ridiculous humor present in so many interactions. Last year, I remember seeing people dressed up and thinking "Who brings feather boas to the south pole?" This year, I considered bringing feather boas of my own. In the comparative comfort of the modern South Pole Station, fighting the elements is not nearly so difficult as fighting cabin fever and restlessness. I have rarely had as much ridiculous fun as I did just hanging around last season, and this year I am prepared for that as much as I'm prepared to do my job and stay healthy while I'm there.

Appropriately, I just spent the last weekend in my home town of Athens, Ohio, for the weekend of the annual Halloween block party. This is a huge event, drawing thousands of costumed out-of-town visitors to join partying Ohio University students in taking over the main street of town. Halloween block-party memories are a fixture in my personal history. Noteably, for example, the years that my father dressed up as the "Roller Ghost" and roller-skated at top speed down the steep (and bumpy brick!) main drag, bellowing his way into collective memory.

It's probably been a decade since I was home for the big party and I almost didn't think of it when I came back last weekend to drop off my cats and wrap up my affairs. But the day before the big bash I found myself at the local vintage store shopping for my own costumes. The place was crazy with wigs being tossed around and dozens of people in half-costumed states, looking for the pieces needed to complete each outfit. I didn't have any particular thing in mind, but I was browsing for ridiculous dress-up wear. While I was trying on dresses, testing out accessories and wondering how I could cram each outfit into my luggage, a shopkeeper (wrapped in a feather boa herself) asked me what I was trying to dress up as for Halloween. My reply? It's not for Halloween, it's to dress up and have a great time at the South Pole! I know it sounds bizarre. It is bizarre! But bizarre is great - it's so full of life and just exactly what I want right now.

This has been a rough year for me, so I'm going to the pole this time a bit worn out. I'm in the middle of a divorce and I had to move out of my apartment in Chicago just a few months after moving it, putting all of my things in storage and shutting down my life until I return from the pole. Through all of this, I have been paranoid that my work efforts have suffered, and I am also worried about how much work we need to do at pole this season. My entire life right now requires inventive improvisations, much more so than at any other time I can remember. The night of the big Athens block party, I walked down the main street by myself and watched all of the halloween outfits and the crowds of friends out having a great time. There is something so important about finding ways to laugh and enjoy life, even when it's crazy, or even when it's 40 degrees below zero and you're as far away from your normal life as you possibly could be. I am looking forward to this season at the South Pole.. And even if I'm not ready for the scientific work I have to do, I'm ready to dress up in an absolutely outrageous red dress, should the need arise.

5 Comments:

Blogger andrew said...

gad dimmit! I didn't know you had a blog! Now I get to read up on last year, two. Break the Janitor's legs and call me, I'll get there asap!
You write BEAUTIFULLY, Katy. **smuack!** Don't forget to solve the mysteries of the universe in your spare time!
Andy

10:00 AM  
Blogger cannedguds said...

You really wrote a good blog! I just wish that I can also have the chance to go to South Pole....Just as long I can find some restless leg syndrome remedies! With this type of disorder, things can be worse in cold places!

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Blogger Julie Cameron said...

Wish you good luck with your south pole project

Julie
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Blogger margita said...

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