Thursday, February 10, 2011

It Must Be Blenz

My glasses unavoidably fog up upon entry. My blurry vision scans the room as I fumble to reach my cotton shirt from underneath my bulky winter layers. With polished glasses replaced, I glance first for familiar faces, second for an open chair with outlet access.

There are various seating options inside the small café. There are three pairs of armless upholstered chairs, set low to the ground on stumpy legs and positioned on either side of a low table. There are round tables barely able to contain two laptops, with as many as four black leather bar chairs encircling them. My favorite situation, however, is a high chair at the dark granite countertop – by far the best position for spontaneous stranger exchanges.

I beeline for the seat, wiggling past a Norwegian with stroller here, and squeezing by an Aussie couple there, before claiming my territory at the window counter with my computer bag and outer jacket. I have reached Home Sweet Home for the next few hours.

Welcome to:

The length of the line inevitably provides ample time to contemplate the menu. Supremo classic chai latte for here? Regular black peach iced tea? Not today.

“Medium mochachillo, no whip please.” It was a well-analyzed decision.

“Wow, you must come here often. You order like a pro!” Helena winked.
Why yes, yes I do.

Step Two: commence computer initialization. I lean over my chair and close out all the pop-ups whilst monitoring the pick-up counter. Malisa calls out the drink orders as if she were presenting members of a studio audience with various prizes they had won, varying her pitch and elongating selected syllables to accentuate the excitement of her tone.

“Espresso macchiato for Ronaldo,” she grins as she proudly bestows him with his reward. “An iced matcha latte for Anja – enjoy!” she chirps, a satisfied smile on her lips. “And a medium mochachillo for Nancy!” She makes it sound like I have won the lottery.

Delicious beverage in hand, I settle into my spot. Knowing my laptop battery’s life is about as short-lived as one run down the track at the Sliding Center, I turn to the potential friend next to me and ask sweetly, “Excuse me, would you please plug this in for me?” I secretly hope that my Canadian-esque politeness will allow me to pass as a local.

I never know where that initial communication will take me, which makes the line a more exciting part of my day than one might expect. During my first visit to Blenz, it evolved into a lengthy, though intermittent, conversation with a VANOC (Vancouver Olympic Committee) volunteer named Ryan.

“Can I ask you something?” I begin shyly. I’m emboldened by the friendly vibes that flow from him like heat from coffee, plus I’m just bursting with curiosity about everything Olympic. 

“Sure,” he shrugs, looking up from his own computer to meet my gaze. His nose ring catches the light as he turns his head, and the florescent bulbs emphasize the blonde tips highlighted in his hair.

“Did VANOC provide you housing?” This question had been nagging me for a few days.

“No, we had to find it on our own,” his voice does not express excess frustration, but rather resigned acceptance. “I’m living in a house with ten other people, and we don’t have internet.”

“Oh. I’m living in a shipping container with ten beds in one room. Our bathroom is in a different trailer – I have to put on boots and a coat to brush my teeth,” I counter, then add for good measure, “We don’t have internet either.”

“Wow. Okay, you win!” he laughs in disbelief.

After a few more exchanges we return to our own affairs. It is not long however, before my inquisitiveness prods me to speak up again.

“Can I ask you something else?”

“Yeah, sure,” he chuckles, his agreement obviously genuine.

I ask him something else about being a volunteer, which he answers in enough detail to suit me temporarily. I explain my internship with Cleanevent, then our conversation fizzles out for another period of time.

By the end of the evening, I learn that in the real world he works at a bank in Saskatchewan, though for the duration of the Games he is a volunteer at the Main Transportation area of Whistler Olympic Park. This initial interaction gives me the courage and the inspiration to both seek out conversations with strangers and to be open to them when they fall into my lap.

“Supremo classic apple cider for Ryan!”

*        *        *

Blenz is not only my home base, but that of my friends. We meet here before or after work to get online, to share about our day, and to make a game plan for the night’s activities. Whenever I enter Blenz, my eyes search each patron for recognition, and about fifty percent of the time I know someone who is already seated, bent over a computer. If not, I continually glance over my shoulder at the people entering and exiting, hoping to prevent a sneak attack.

A daily occurrence
One afternoon, as I sit at my usual post at the counter overlooking the Village Stroll, Sydney comes in wearing that look – that I need to vent, NOW!  look. I take a sip of my chai latte and invited her to open the flood gates.

She pours out all her frustration and disappointment with our company’s management, and it breaks my heart to hear her despair.

“I think I just want to go home,” she sighs, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.

“What would it take to make you want to stay? Can you talk to Joey again? Do you want to switch venues with me? You’d love the Sliding Center. There has to be a way to fix this,” I am in full problem-solving mode.

We reach a decision, and I can see her relax. When she stands up to place her beverage order, I turn my attention back to my blog – at least momentarily.

“Do you work for Cleanevent?” the young man to my right leans forward to enter my field of vision and points at my Cleanevent Academy binder.

“Yeah, I do,” I answer, turning towards him. “Do you?” I wonder how much of my conversation he has just overheard.

“Nah, I did, but I quit,” he says, and I smile knowingly. “As soon as I arrived at the camp and they showed me to my container, I decided to look for another job. I’m so glad I did.”

“Yeah, Camp Cleanevent is…interesting,” I hesitate, always uncomfortable with negative gossip. “I try my best not to spend any time there. I come to Blenz instead!”

“Good move!” he laughs. “I’m Mohammed,” he offers, extending his hand.

“Nancy,” I return, smiling at my new friend.

We continue to converse on and off, just as I had with Ryan. He asks if I know Carlos, the Camp Cleanevent cook, and I introduce him to my friends who wander into Blenz also looking to take advantage of the free WiFi. He even asks me to watch his computer while he runs to the bathroom. It quickly becomes clear that my ease chatting with Ryan was not as rare as I had originally assumed. It must be Blenz.

“Medium mocha latte for Mohammed!”

*        *        *

Early one morning as I enter Blenz and stand in line, my ritual inspection of the area detects the waving arms of Cory, who has overtaken a small corner of the coffee shop but offers me the empty green chair next to him. We’re lucky enough to score two tables in our empire, and despite being located just outside the bathroom I am thankful for this choice real estate. As we both type away furiously, hunched over the tables that don’t even reach our knees while we’re seated, a man in his early fifties with graying hair and a beer gut materializes in front of us and stares down awkwardly before speaking.

“I’m having a lot of trouble here,” his deep voice begins, then he pauses for an uncomfortably long moment as I look up at him expectantly.

What does this guy want? I wonder, squirming a bit under his gaze.

“The password is ‘Blenz Loves You’?” he asks finally, referring to the WiFi connection.

“No,” I explain, relieved that he does not turn out to be the major creeper I suspected him to be. “That’s the network. The password is Whistler with a capital ‘W’”.

“Oooh, okay. Thank you,” he nods, leaving as abruptly as he appeared.

I shudder involuntarily, exchanging a what was that?! glance with Cory.

“Regular café americano, no cream or sugar,” for the Creeper That Wasn’t.

*        *        *

Today is my last day in Whistler. The village is quiet, and Blenz is not as packed as usual. My frequent glances over my shoulder are only returned by the man with the violin on my right, who has hung on the wall for the past three weeks, and the noble inukshuk painted against an azure sky to the left.

The young blonde woman returns to her seat beside me, and I refocus my attention back to the last-minute writing I am attempting to accomplish. It is not long, however, before the chai latte has traveled to the extremities of my body.

“Will you watch my computer for me?” are the first words I speak to the woman. “I have to run to the bathroom”.

“Sure,” she agrees easily, then adds “the bathroom line at Starbucks isn’t long.” It is understood between us, though unspoken, that the single restroom at Blenz has been out of order for the past week and a half.

“Oh good, I didn’t want to have to go all the way down to the public ones,” I thank her and hurry out. I fully realize, as I scurry next door, that three weeks ago there would have been no way that I would have risked leaving my computer out of the sight of trusted eyes. The culture of coffee, saturated with conversation, has soaked into my bloodstream with every beerstein-style glass mug of warm latte, loosening my stress and ushering in a refreshingly positive outlook on the goodness of people. Change has brewed inside me, and will continue to percolate even after I leave Whistler behind me.

“Regular strawberry tea latte!” for the Kind Kindred Spirit. And a regretful goodbye ― for Blenz Coffee. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nose Plugs Not Included

I toured a composting facility. Voluntarily.

I made the decision during my third and final week in Whistler, B.C. Since my internship at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games was with Cleanevent ― the company contracted to handle snow, cleaning, and waste removal at the mountain venues ― I deemed it only appropriate to educate myself to the greatest extent possible about the journey undertaken by the immense volume of waste generated at an event as substantial as the Olympics. 

When I arrived at the Whistler Compost Facility I was under the impression that a tour had been prearranged for me by one of the Cleanevent managers. Although that turned out not to be the case, I was received warmly by Patrick Mulholland, the Compost Operations Manager, and immediately shown around anyhow.

Prior to committing to the site visit I had been warned by Cleanevent staff that “it smells really bad”. Apparently that is Australian for “you have never smelt a stronger, more foul odor in your life”. Upon entering into the compound, my senses were flooded by the aroma of baking biosolids and fermenting food waste. I tried to cough the smell out of my nose and lungs, but it stuck like the stench of a skunk’s spray on the hottest day of the year, so I sealed my nostrils tightly closed like a camel and resolved to breath solely through my mouth for the duration of the tour. The scent alone was enough to make me never want to generate any sort of waste ever again.

Pre-composted material, a mixture of food and biological waste, plus wood chips
 The facility was opened in December of 2008 at a cost of $1.5 million to accommodate the compostable material produced by the town of Whistler, and had since contracted with the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) to receive their waste, as well. Also on the property is the Whistler Transfer Station, which collects items such as untreated wood, metal, tires, and drywall for recycling.

Patrick began our tour by explaining the special compost recipe they have been developing since the facility became operational; he spoke with complete ease and expertise, demonstrating that he was a true scientist and not just the friendly neighborhood trash collector. The proportions of the compost mixture have had to be readjusted and tweaked to produce the best results, but they currently stand at a ratio of 2,300 pounds of biosolids to 1,000 pounds of food waste to 3,000 – 5,000 pounds of wood chips. The correct balance is necessary in order to control the moisture, which needs to be at levels of 60% or below.

Another important factor to control before the process begins is the purity of the substances. Patrick explained that the compostable waste arriving from VANOC is considerably contaminated, and about 20% must be thrown out as garbage and enter the landfill instead. He showed me the section of the conveyer belt at which one of his employees must stand elbow-deep in waste, hand-picking out as much garbage as he can while it slides past. It was not in operation at the time of my visit, but I glanced around at the strapping young men buzzing busily about the complex and couldn’t help but wonder who the unlucky fellow was that got stuck on filter duty the most.

I had seen first-hand the waste management system employed by VANOC. They were not simply placing trash cans throughout the venues, but rather a small army of receptacles were clustered at each station consisting of: two compostable bins, clearly marked with green lids and a graphic illustrating what items qualified as compostable; one black bin for general waste, also labeled with a picture; and a Coke recycling barrel with a red lid whose opening was only big enough to fit a plastic bottle.

Early on, as the VANOC waste began to be collected and analyzed, the data showed that contamination was still high and that only about half of the waste was being diverted from landfills, rather than the goal of 85%. In an attempt to dummy-proof the system even more, Cleanevent employees at each venue created bigger signs, onto which they taped the actual items that belonged in each receptacle, making it even clearer that all the utensils, plates, and cups could in fact be composted, and that plastic wrappers could not.

Dummy-proof sign developed by Cleanevent staff
 Even our best efforts, however, could not save that poor soul from the purification process. After the contaminating garbage is picked out and a giant magnet removes metal objects, the conveyor belt dumps the waste  into a tray that holds about 8,000 pounds. The plant processes roughly fourteen to sixteen of these trays daily, taking them into a 265 foot tunnel where they are first held for three days at a temperature of 70°C to kill all pathogens and bugs.

The composting material continues to move slowly through the tunnels for a full fourteen days, while the crew monitors the temperature with probes and ensures proper ventilation. It is essential that enough oxygen can flow through so that CO2 is generated, not methane gas as is produced by landfills. At the midway point in the process, spinners break up the waste so that it does not become too compacted.

At the end of the two weeks all traces of that horrid, rotten smell have fled the compost and a clean, earthy odor has taken up residence in its place. The output is blended with sand to drain some excess moisture, and can then be sold as soil.

Although the selling of the soil allows for some cost-recovery, the facility is by no means self-sustaining. Just as utilities, the capital expenditure is huge for an operation like this. The revenue from soil sales, even along with the dumping fees and the average of $1,000 per week from tin can returns, can hardly make a dent in the costs of operations. The municipality recognizes the environmental benefit of diverting this waste from landfills, however, and that alliance permits the project to continue.

Though my employment foray in the waste industry was brief, the educational component was invaluable. I now recycle even more aggressively than before, and plan to have my own composting system once I have a housing situation that allows for it. I am also taking a pledge to support legislation that advocates for sustainable waste treatment. After all, there are a crew of guys in Whistler who tolerate a sickening stench day in and day out just to do their part in helping our Earth. Are you going to spit in their coffee?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Native Roots

Roots ground us, giving us nourishment and stability, but they also reach out and connect us to our neighbors in such a deep and subtle way that the relationship may very easily go unnoticed. The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center was designed with the express purpose of recognizing, celebrating, and teaching about two tribes of First Nations peoples whose roots intertwine deep in the history of Whistler, British Columbia. It is a testament to their arts, their shared heritage, and their cooperative future. In their words, it is a place “where rivers, mountains and people meet”.

The Great Hall of the SLCC was inspired by a Squamish Longhouse. Its open feel is enhanced by the natural light streaming in through its wall of windows and by its lofty ceilings that mimic the tall cedar trees of the local forest. The staff is soft-spoken and serene, but remarkably hospitable. Although during the Olympics the admission fee was lifted for all visitors, I made a donation of the student price anyway which, looking back, surprises me slightly; at nearly every other establishment in Whistler, my friends and I would ask if we were entitled to any sort of discount with our official Olympic accreditation. Here, however, I chose to pay the full price normally expected of me. Before I even realized it, some of the honor and respect intrinsic to these peoples had been transferred to me, compelling me to share it back with them.

Museum map in hand, I delve into reading every word of every portion of the exhibits. I am thankful for my solitude ― I love working my way slowly and methodically through museums, so as not to overlook any interesting tidbits. I had not progressed very far from inside the large wooden doors when Martina, the beautiful young Lil’wat who had greeted me upon entry, came over to invite me into the storytelling performance taking place in the SLCC’s auditorium. I was touched by her thoughtfulness, and overly impressed when she proceeded to hold the door for me so that I had enough light to find a seat. 

The storyteller wore all black, and the stage was unadorned with scenery or props aside from a single chair. She first introduced each story, then both narrated and provided voices to each character, acting out bears wrestling and siblings fighting. Each story had a moral, of course, and animals were used metaphorically to engage the children in the lessons. She was not overly theatrical, yet the energy she put into the performance was evident. 

I emerged from the theater to return to my careful inspection of each display, and learned about the aboriginal carving tradition. Carving has been at the heart of Squamish and Lil’wat culture since their creation, and those who excel at the art are held in high esteem within their communities. As with everything about native cultures, carving relates to all aspects of tribal life. Their language and stories are engraved into wood to be passed down to the generations to come. Canoes, which contribute to the tribes’ sustenance, are themselves hollowed by carvers and then ornamented with symbols representing their values. Two large wooden weaving whorls stand guard in the great hall: one bearing a human face and welcoming arms, to represent the native people welcoming all visitors; the other depicting a legendary two-headed snake, slain by the Squamish hero Xwecht’aál. As Jodie Broomfield, from the Squamish Nation, says, “it’s all connected spiritually, mentally, physically”.

When Xwecht'aál defeated the serpent, he took a bone from it that gave him healing powers.

My leisurely pace caused me to still be in the vicinity of the theater when the fifteen-minute documentary Where Rivers, Mountain and People Meet was scheduled to begin. Martina approached me once more and in her quiet manner invited me in to watch, also informing me that a tour of the building would take place after. Again she held the door for me, a humble smile on her face as I thanked her and found my seat.

Our tour guide, Bill, met us outside the theater. He wore the same shy grin as the women at the admissions desk, and its placement on his round face was cherubic. Though his red button-down shirt was not traditional aboriginal clothing, a small woven cedar bark hat perched atop his head, and his proud posture carried it as if it were a bird’s nest laden with eggs. His dark eyes twinkled like those of a wise grandfather, and he shuffled around carrying a weight indicative of some plentiful harvests in recent years. I liked him immediately.

Bill escorted our small group throughout the exhibits, and his insights greatly enhanced the museum experience. He added personal touches to the pieces, such as identifing one of the men in an old black and white photo as his grandfather, and sharing a private story about some young men who were recognized for reviving their culture’s carving customs. At one point while we were paused, waiting for the rest of the group to gather around, Bill looked at me and asked softly, “How am I doing?”

    “You’re doing great!” I encouraged. He was becoming more and more endeared to me every moment.
    “Oh, thank you,” he blushed. “I have to ask every once in a while to make sure”.

By the time we returned to the Great Hall, only myself and two older American women remained in the tour group. Bill invited us up on a platform to sit at a long table, which had wooden pegs fastened to the edges and a bundle of cedar bark strips next to a plastic tub of water on the top. He asked us to get our piece of bark deeply saturated with water, then showed us how to loop the bark around the peg, pulling tightly toward ourselves, while first twisting each side of the bark and then crisscrossing the two sides to form a type of braid. Once the ends were tied off, we either had a bracelet or, if the bark strip was too short, a bookmark.

Our craft table
My bracelet!

The craft project was the conclusion of Bill’s tour. While we worked, he told us about some of the special events that had been hosted at the SLCC during the Olympics, and at how shocked he was that the dignitaries and other important guests wanted to have their pictures taken with him. The three of us did not find it strange at all, however, and also requested photos.

Me and Bill!

Though I had learned a lot from Bill’s perspective, I returned to my thorough reading of each exhibit piece. Weaving is another highly revered skill to both the Lil’wat and Squamish nations. A large cedar root mat hangs proudly in the Great Hall of the SLCC, created specifically for the building as a way to pass on the artform to the youth. The entire process, it is explained, takes a whole seasonal cycle. Young members of the Lil’wat nation learned what resources are harvested when and how to prepare them for weaving. To dye the wild cherry bark black, for instance, it must spend months buried in slough water. Through the creation of this wall hanging, many lessons were able to be passed down to modern generations, and the cultural traditions can now be kept alive.

A glance at my watch told me two things. One: I had been at the SLCC for two hours, and two: it was lunchtime. Although a nearby sushi restaurant had been highly recommended to me by numerous people, I decided to continue embracing the natives’ culture and check out the café downstairs. Contrary to my typical tendencies, I opted for the venison chili (I had never before been inclined to eat venison, but I thought hey, when in Whistler…) and bannock, which was defined by the menu as “a traditional fry bread made fresh daily”. It turned out to be an excellent decision.

Venison chili and bannock

When I returned upstairs to complete my visit, I was drawn to the maps on the wall outlining each culture’s territory. Whistler was depicted in a distinct overlap between the two, and having by that point spent almost three full weeks in the mountain village I understood first-hand the value of this land. Rather  than becoming a battleground of constant conflict, however, the area became a symbol of alliance, unity, and cooperation between the two nations. For centuries the two peoples lived side by side in peaceful coexistence, and in 2001 a Protocol Agreement was signed as a contract of solidarity in continued collaboration regarding matters of preservation and protection of their mutual heritage.

The following year, the Shared Legacies Agreement was signed between the Squamish and Lil’wat tribes as well as the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation and the Province of British Columbia. It was this powerful pact that granted $3 million towards the building of the SLCC, as well as 300 acres of land for economic development and another $2.3 million dedicated towards a skills and legacy training project.

As I stared at the maps inside this beautiful building, founded by a joint partnership of different cultures, I couldn’t help but wonder why other parts of the world were unable to set aside their differences in customs and beliefs and instead celebrate their commonalities. When roots are allowed to forge their paths deep into the earth without conflict, the tree – and the community which it protects – grows healthy and strong. When roots from neighboring plants are fighting for same space, however, the growth of each is stunted and their beauty diminished. The Squamish and Lil’wat peoples are excellent examples to the world of the gifts that can be bestowed by a healthy living environment – their woodwork comes from sturdy trunks, their baskets are made with strong bark. And their cultural center is operated with pure human spirit.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's Coming Back: A Memoir

Sometimes we become tethered, voluntarily or otherwise, to a slice in time, a location on a map, an event on a calendar. The land and its structures take up residency in the core of our beings, bittersweet burdens we carry with us long after our footprints are erased from the soil. Human connections jog our memories and dispatch our minds back to those moments, those settings, and those emotions. From the instant I first ducked into the Blackcomb Excalibur gondola, a union was forged between myself and my destination: the Whistler Sliding Center. It was a bond that would be tested, threatened, and strengthened over the next three weeks as my life twisted and curved through thrills and chills in a warped harmony with the turns the sliding track carved down the steep mountainside.

My introduction to the Sliding Center began with a glowing heart. I was standing outside the security checkpoint tent with our crew of workers, the anticipation to make my inaugural entrance threatening to overwhelm me. Charles paused his French conversation with Aurelien to clarify from Jan if “glowing” held the same meaning as “shiny”. My initial reaction was surprise, and I wondered why he would choose to ask a Czech rather than a native English-speaker. “No,” Jan mused, rolling the words around in his head for a breath of a moment before answering in his clean accent, “‘shiny’ is reflected light, but ‘glowing’ is light from within”. Wow. That briefest of exchanges was a powerball of significance for me, and foreshadowed many essential elements of my experience.

I could feel the venue’s glowing heart from the moment I entered the complex, despite my first glimpse being a muddy parking lot dotted with shipping containers for offices and tents for buildings. I have stood inside the Coliseum. I have craned my neck to stare up at both David and the Sistine Chapel. My fingers have traced lines on the columns of ancient Greek temples. I am no mere stranger to architectural feats or works of beauty.  The sliding track, however, touched me like no other. It reached through my flesh, zigged and zagged between my ribs, and delicately wound its glow around my heart. In addition to the awe, appreciation, and respect that I have for those other buildings, there burns within me a love and reverence for the power of the track that cannot be properly qualified in words. I intend no offense to Michelangelo, but I have never been so humbled by a structure or artwork as I am by the Whistler Sliding Center.

It is a masterpiece not only in construction but in operation. Each athlete that flashes by adds a stroke of genius to the canvas. The first time I saw a woman fly around Turn 16 at nearly ninety miles an hour laying flat-backed on a luge sled, I laughed aloud in pure amazement. I heard the low, building roar of her sled for only a few seconds before she zipped past me in a crescendo, then the rumble evaporated into the frosty air. For that frozen moment in time, she was close enough to touch had I reached out my arm. I leaned on a steel support beam just outside the track, marveling at the exhilaration and adrenaline that still hung thick in the air like smoke after a wildfire. I was moved by the power of the track and the dominance each athlete fought to gain. Television does not adequately represent the speed and level of difficulty undertaken by these competitors.

But I know. I saw it. I was there.

My infatuation was only three days old on the morning of the Opening Ceremonies. I had already vowed to seize every opportunity to escape the office and bear witness to the stunning displays of athleticism occurring just up the road. The sun’s rays fell on my face as I stood inside the final turn to watch the men lugers’ last practice runs. I focused my camera on the “Vancouver” lettering in the ice and waited with my shutter finger ready until I heard the foreboding thunder of the sled barreling around the corner. I rejoiced at catching the luger in frame. The second Georgian luger to take his run began as no different than the rest. I commented to myself that I had no idea how to pronounce his last name. Click. I glanced down to see his relatively small body passing over the lower extremities of the “-er” painted blue beneath the clear top layer of ice. I glanced up, then wished my photo had held my attention longer.

 Nodar Kumaritashvili 2.12.10

I do not remember hearing an audible gasp from the few of us inside Turn 16. I wondered who hit the pause button as the whole world slowed down, then the medical team lounging on the Gator beside us sprang into action, racing under the tunnel and out of the track. The screen that had showed the luger fly off his sled and into the post beside the track went blank as my whole body went numb. I had stood in that same spot the day before.

It was as if I had gone deaf. There were no panicked screams, no intruding sirens indicating grave danger. Then I heard it. The sled that had just bucked off its rider galloped backwards around Turn 16, crazed and confused, afraid of being caught. Rather than reminding me of a building shaking from a low-flying airplane, the sound was more like fingernails on a chalkboard without Nodar Kumaritashvili’s 176 pounds of force weighing it down, controlling it. It was just two steel blades scratching hopelessly on the surface of the ice. “It’s coming back! It’s coming back!”, a VANOC smurf shouted into my brain as he climbed onto the track into the path of the empty sled. His voice echoed around in there, bouncing off the caverns of my mind. It still has not found a pathway out but lives as a boomerang, retreating into my unconscious only to resurface and again bellow its promise: “It’s coming back! It’s coming back!”.

There was nothing to do but sit in the office and stare dejectedly at each other. Clouds soon blanketed the sky and began to shed their tears as we learned from repeated Google web searches the devastating news of Nodar’s passing. There was a sudden void deep within the core of me. I immediately felt an unwarmable cold, and fatigue descended like a tidal wave. I had prepared myself for virtually anything when I came to Whistler. I had not, however, braced myself for death.

Over the next few days an internal contradiction clawed at my soul, huffing and puffing and terrorizing my glowing heart. How could something I loved so immediately and unreservedly inflict such pain? Was the track a masterpiece or a monster? Was I the monster for holding the icy path in such high esteem? Who was at fault? Who had the answers?

To alleviate my torment, I forced myself to recognize the following notions: (1.) I will seek not blame nor restitution. It is impossible to point the finger when there is no one person, nor one decision. It was an accident. (2.) Perfection does not exist. The spirit is never completely free from turmoil, yet conflict leads to learning. Each luger chooses his own course down the ice, making adjustments based on previous runs and the condition of the track, but even this knowledge will not prevent hard rubs around the corners. (3.) I called the Sliding Center my destination, but I could have just as easily used its etymological cousin ‘destiny’. I know that my presence at the track and what I witnessed had a profound impact on me. Nodar changed my life and my Olympic experience.

The other solace I found was from the comrades with whom I shared my days at the Sliding Center. Jono, the hyperactive Aussie supervisor whose frantic hands and babbling lips were difficult to decipher over the radio, entertained me with the practical jokes he interjected around our office. Cedric, with his oversized doe eyes and poor English, kept me in stitches every time he innocently queried “Yum yums?” when he came to retrieve his meal ticket. Jan, who wisely defined “glowing” on my first day, reminded me daily of my brother with his smart yet sarcastic humor and geeky tendencies. Aurelien, the Parisian whose twinkling eyes and mischievous smile hide behind dark-rimmed glasses and a scruffy beard, never ceased to make me laugh by saying things like “My accent is sexy” and “napskin”. These kindred spirits, among others, were integral parts of my happiness ― and my healing.

I am still not certain it is possible to describe the true essence of an intangible feeling so powerful that it stays lodged in your heart despite being separated from its source. It is a glow from within that cannot be extinguished, because it was born in the flame of a wild, untamed spirit older than time. It is both a glow of joy and a glow of sorrow, dancing forever around, between, and through one another. That glow lives inside me now, and I will cherish it because I know that I am its true source.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone! I just wanted to share this photo with you that I saw on the facebook fanpage for The Olympic Games. Enjoy!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Funniest Man on the Planet

One night, Holly and I had the honor of riding the #10 bus with a guy who I determined to be the funniest man on the planet.

Tired after a long day of gallivanting around the town, Holly and I collapsed into our usual seats and lounged quietly across the aisle from each other as the bus lingered its obligatory amount of time for stragglers to board. Normally the other passengers who wandered into the back of the bus would turn out to be Cleanevent employees, but this night it was three burly men in Swiss team jackets who interrupted my spacey stare as they took their places along the last row. My line of sight out the opposite window was soon after obstructed by a tall Austrian man who appeared to be in his early- to mid-30s. A woman sat next to him and they exchanged a familiar greeting before she introduced another Swiss gentleman to her left. I (regrettably) did not catch the Austrian's name during that brief exchange.

A (fairly accurate) seating chart of the back half of our bus

I was still largely lost in thought as the bus pulled away from the curb into the night, though before long I couldn't help but notice the intermittent rounds of exuberant laughter emanating from the Swiss to my left. Even without understanding German, I observed that each time the Austrian said a sentence - just a single sentence - it resulted in the deepest, most honest chuckles from the men and an insuppressible giggle from the woman. He wasn't telling a story, nor was there a discernible conversation between the Europeans; The Austrian just kept cracking jokes in seeming isolation and, based on the reaction he was getting, he was quite the comedian.

As the ride continued, yawning replaced jokes on his list of priorities and I fought to stifle my own breaths despite watching him open his mouth wide enough to swallow a soccer ball. Awkward eye contact was unavoidable based on the combination of the layout of the bus and the seats we had chosen, yet I couldn't manage to muster up enough courage to speak to this intimidatingly hilarious Austrian. What could I possibly say to a man whose every utterance was welcomed with such heartfelt appreciation? I kept my mouth shut (both to refrain from embarrassing myself by speaking and to avoid further infecting the other passengers with yawns), however I silently hoped he would enlighten me with a wisecrack in English. But alas, when we parted ways I was left to only marvel at my fortuitous brush with greatness: I shared a bus with the funniest man on the planet.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nimble Management Teams

A week after Paul Lovett's presentation, his older brother Craig also came to speak with us. He spoke more about VANOC's journey and the bigger picture of planning an Olympics, not just Cleanevent's role.

The timeline of Vancouver's preparation, as he presented it, looked something like this:
  • 1960 - Vancouver started toying with the idea of hosting the Games
  • 1980 - They started seriously considering making a bid
  • 1990 - They started planning for the bid process
  • 1999 - The bid process began; 32 cities were narrowed down to 16, then 8, then 5
  • 2003 - Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics Games
This was $1 billion process, including infrastructure from roadways to the airport to the power grid to the waste system, et cetera, et cetera.

Craig then challenged us to list the "most important players", or stakeholders, in the Games. We decided there were:
  • The Athletes - of course, they are the reason for the Games; they put on the show
  • Management - they provide organization, safety, policy, etc
  • The Sponsors - they provide the essential funding
  • The Media - they are the "eyes of the world"
  • The Spectators - they bring in revenue, but also provide some of the "wow factor"
  • The T.V. Audience - they indirectly provide even more revenue than spectators in the stands
  • The Olympic Family - this term is used not only for the relatives of athletes but for anyone involved with the governing bodies of the sport or the Games.
We also came up with a list of some of the "Functional Areas" that play roles in the planning and execution of an event like this:
  • Sport - controls everything involving actual competition within the Field of Play (FOP)
  • Site Management - deals with the overall venue and logistics
  • Transport - responsible for getting all athletes, spectators, employees, volunteers, contractors, equipment, etc to the venue
  • Overlay - designs the physical layout of the venue ("the people who get handed a box of jigsaw pieces" - Craig Lovett)
  • Wayfinding - responsible for all signage to get spectators, employees, vendors, contractors, etc from their doorsteps and into the venue
  • Security - monitors access to the venue and safety within it
  • Broadcast/Press Media - transfers images and information from the venue to the outside world
  • Look - designs and hangs the "frosting" - posters, banners, fence coverings, etc.
  • Food & Beverage - catering for workers and concessions for spectators
  • SCW - snow removal, cleaning, and waste removal from front- and back-of-the-house
Sounds like there's a lot going on here, eh? Craig had one main point behind all of this: all these different aspects MUST come together to become one team. They must integrate.

This idea of "integration" is a buzz word that I've been buzzing around for a while now (my Honors Thesis paper is on Integrated Rural Tourism), and it is so essential to a large event like this. Craig also called it "venuisation", turning all the individual functional areas into a venue management team in which each department has a seat at the table.

Without open lines of communication, each area is operating in a vacuum and when the event gets closer and their isolated little bubble comes in contact with another area's bubble, both are going to pop and lie in pieces on the ground. Craig explained that “the best events in the world have nimble management teams”, the ones who recognize that “at some stage you have to stop planning and start doing”.

This is especially important with the Olympics, because there is only one Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games - there is no "next time" for VANOC to get it right. They get one shot. “What’s the most important thing in the Olympic Games?" Craig asked. "Fixing it right now”.

Venue management must put themselves in the place of spectators early on, and utilize each area's expertise in a dialogue to discuss the most practical ways to plan for every potential scenario that may arise.

That is what I LOVE about event planning. There are countless challenges, all unique to venue and the event and the location and the people involved. Every action must be thought through 10, 20, 50 steps down the road to consider all possible repercussions. Each action must be run by a dozen other departments; it is such a collaboration of minds, all experts in their own fields. It's amazing what people can achieve when working together. I look forward to the day when I can be a part of such a team.