{October 31, 2012}   Juiced-Up Jack-o’-Lanterns

I love to carve pumpkins each Halloween. Up until this year, I’d been happy to use kitchen knives and the tiny implements that come in pumpkin carving kits to bring spooky squash designs to life. The tools’ serrated edges can saw through even thick pumpkin skin. And they’re especially handy for detail work. The main drawback? It takes a long time to complete a jack-o’-lantern when you’re cutting a few millimeters at a time.

After reading two books by Tom Nardone—“Extreme Pumpkins” and “Extreme Pumpkins II”—I decided to add a little juice to my carving equipment with the addition of power tools. Nardone recommends a jig saw, a reciprocating saw, a router and a drill. (Check out his cool web site for more information.)

I thought I’d start off slow, so I asked my husband if I could borrow his drill and jig saw. He said “sure,” but must have had second thoughts, because a few days later he presented me with my very own jig saw. (I don’t let the fact that it cost less than $15 diminish the thoughtfulness of his gift.)

I wanted to carve several pumpkins for a punkin’ chunkin’ party we hold each year, so Doug set up a work area in the garage and I started carving. It didn’t take long for me to admit I was in love with the jig saw. I smoothly cut the lid for a pumpkin in seconds. I couldn’t believe how easily it cut curves! And by pulling the blade out and repositioning it, it was a breeze to cut a mouthful of teeth for the Property Defender. What took an hour to carve last year was now done in minutes.

The power drill was a dream to work with as well. It was awesome for making the round eyes in the alien and “Gourdzilla” pumpkins as well as the round holes needed for the worm-infested pumpkin. I still used hand tools for the finer details, but the power tools trimmed hours off the job. I carved a half-dozen jack-o’-lanterns for the party in record time.

A few weeks later, I pulled out the power tools again when the boys had a friend over to carve pumpkins. They used the tiny saws for small areas while I used the jig saw to cut out the larger designs. (I haven’t learned the appropriate tool to remove and scrape out the pumpkin guts, so the boys got to handle that messy job.)

One “extreme” pumpkin from Nardone’s book that I didn’t find time to carve until today was the “Cannibal Pumpkin.” With the jig saw, I cut the mouth in about 2 minutes. Cutting the eyes took about 2 minutes each. With the drill, each nostril took maybe 30 seconds. The face for the “victim” (made from a mini pumpkin) was just as quick: three drill holes and it was done in 90 seconds.

But I found it tedious to use a paring knife to strip off the skin for the pupils and teeth. I think power tools have spoiled me, because I’m thinking of investing in a router for that job. Who knows what I’ll add to my tool box after that?

Want to learn more about my 47 and fearless project? Read my first post.


{October 31, 2012}   Thrilling Treetop Tour

I have yet to schedule a hot air balloon ride or skydiving trip. (Skydiving remains a tiny bit out of my comfort zone right now.) But one of my latest adventures—a zip line canopy tour—had me soaring through the air, at times 75 feet above the forest floor, so I’m working my way up to it!

I had invited my husband, several girlfriends, parents from my son’s Cub Scout Pack and pretty much anyone I encountered to join me zip lining, but just two daring people could squeeze it into their schedules—my dear friend Ellen’s niece, Wendy, and Wendy’s husband, Mike.

We met at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours and were thrilled that the weather had cooperated; it was a beautiful, sunny fall day.

According to LGCT’s website, a canopy tour differs from a typical zip line tour because it’s a “living tour built in the trees of a forest. Riders traverse steel cables connecting a series of platforms built in the trees, walk wire rope sky bridges (and) tree-based staircases. … (It’s) an ecologically oriented sightseeing adventure with a bird’s eye view of the canopy of the forest. (It) usually includes information about the ecology, geology, biology and history of the area in addition to the thrill of zip lining.”

It also promised memories to last a lifetime, and I’m happy to say, it made good on its promise.

After weighing in and signing a release form, Mike, Wendy and I headed to base camp where we met our SkyGuides, Tim and Alex, and the rest of our group—a father, his two teenage sons and two German exchange students the family was hosting. Tim and Alex fitted each of us with waist and chest harnesses, a trolley, two lanyards with carabiners, gloves and a safety helmet. We had to choose nicknames for each other and write them on our helmets.

Then we were driven a short distance to “ground school”, where our guides demonstrated the proper hand grip on the trolley (the metal part with grooved wheels that clips on the cable), leg position (crossed at ankles), hand signals for braking, hand placement on the cable for braking (tostada, taco, no burrito) and how to self-rescue (pull ourselves hand-over-hand) if we stopped midway on a cable. Then we practiced those skills individually before we had a group photo taken and it was “Time to Fly.”

We headed to the first of eight zip lines built into the forest canopy—the Butterfly. It’s so named, we were told, because its goal is to rid first-time riders of butterflies in the stomach and make them comfortable with the zip-lining process. In general, it works like this: One guide stays with the group while the second guide takes the zip line to the next platform. The first guide clips a rider on to the cable and sends him off. The second guide signals the rider when to brake and helps him land on the platform. The guide unclips the rider from the cable and secures him safely to the platform before he signals the first guide to send the next rider. Safety is paramount in every move. We were secured to a cable, support or staircase the entire time we were in the forest.

I didn’t have to wait long before it was my turn on the Butterfly. One second I’m standing on a stump on the platform, the next I’m flying through the air. A few seconds later, I’m at the next platform. What fun! If anyone in our group was fearful, he or she didn’t let it show. We all crossed the first zip line easily, looking like naturals.

It helped that Tim and Alex were great guides: informative, instructive and inspiring. They answered questions, offered encouragement and corrected us when we made a mistake. (In one instance, I put my hand in front of the trolley instead of behind it when I braked. Alex immediately corrected me, explaining that my fingers would become “hamburger” if the trolley ran them over.)

Along the way, they described how the course was built , provided details about the zip lines, staircases and bridges and talked about the wildlife and species of trees in the 100-acre park. They shared past experiences, including an awesome story about an 87-year-old man who completed the canopy tour the week before our visit. Plus, they both had a good sense of humor, making jokes and teasing us about our nicknames or the comments we made.

Although the rest of our group was on the quiet side, Wendy, Mike and I made up for it. We cheered each other on, posed for silly photos and laughed throughout the tour. I’m so glad they agreed to join me. They were great companions—adventurous, smart, funny and always ready with a clever quip.

All the zip lines were fun, but one gave me pause—the Beast. It’s 840 feet long with no end in sight from the starting platform. That seemed a little scary to me, but zipping that distance gave me a few more moments to appreciate the gorgeous fall colors in the forest before I focused on braking. I loved it! (Watch the video Mike took.)

Waiting on the ending platform after my turn, I was amazed that I could hear the “whirring” noise of the next rider zipping toward us before I could even make him out as a speck moving in the distance.

In addition to the zip lines, we crossed five rope bridges, including one of the longest in the lower 48 states, and climbed three spiral stairways as well as a one-of-a-kind “floating” double-helix stairway that wraps around a tree. All very cool.

The finale of the tour is 1,200-ft. dual racing zip line. After managing eight previous zip lines, this wouldn’t seem much different. But it is for a few reasons. First, you don’t control braking; it’s done by a staff member at the ending platform. Second, you have little, if any, control of the direction your body faces as you race; frontward, backward or spinning in circles. Third, and most nerve-wracking for me, you don’t hold onto the trolley—or anything—for support as you run (yes, run!) off the platform.

Listening to the choppy videotape I made during this part of the tour, you can hear my nervous sigh before asking Alex, “So, we’re just running off this platform? Is that what you’re telling me?” I sound a little panicked as I turn to Wendy, who was getting ready to race alongside me, and ask, “Are you holding on to something?” Like I had somehow missed that important part of the guides’ instructions.

Fortunately for me, Alex and Tim didn’t give me much time to dwell on it. Before I knew it, I heard, “In 3…2…1…Go!” That’s all I needed to take the leap! Soon, I was soaring, squealing and spinning as Wendy and I raced to the final platform.  We were told riders on the racing zip can reach speeds of 45 mph. I doubt we did, but it didn’t matter. It was a blast! (Watch the video of the race from my point of view.)

Before our tour, we had opted for the digital photo package, which included group pictures Alex took during the tour. I also carried my own digital camera and FlipCam video camera, which were strapped to my harness. While it’s nice to have the additional photos, I found it awkward to keep tucking the cameras into the webbing of my harness before zipping and then taking them out to use. The gloves made it clumsy to control the zoom and press the shutter button; yet removing them to shoot photos was inconvenient and slowed the steady pace our guides set. Maybe next time, I’ll invest in camera that attaches to my helmet!

And there likely will be a next time. I’ve recommended the tour to anyone who asks about it and offer to join them if they decide to go. It’s that much fun!

Want to learn more about my 47 and fearless project? Read my first post.

{October 23, 2012}   Finally—I Had My Head Examined

Over the course of my life, I’m sure there have been several people who, upon witnessing my actions, thought I should have my head examined. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I actually had it done.

I had a CT (computed tomography) scan or CAT (computed axial tomography) scan of my skull. Basically, a CT scan takes X-rays slices (cross-sections) of a body part, in my case, my head.

I’ve had more than my share of sinus infections in the last few years. But for several months now, I’ve been plagued with sinus headaches, and I haven’t been able to get rid of them. I’ve tried drugs: two courses of antibiotics, prescription and over-the-counter nasal sprays, and OTC allergy meds. I’ve tried homeopathic treatments, including saline spray, nasal irrigation (netipot) and colloidal silver.

At times, one or more of these methods have provided minor relief. But the pressure in my sinuses returns, making my teeth and gums hurt and giving me headaches that last throughout the day. The pain isn’t so bad that it keeps from doing routine activities. But it makes it difficult to be creative, write my blog, complete freelance projects and enjoy the time I spend with my family.

When I’d had enough (and my husband was tired of listening to my complaints), I broke down and met with an ear, nose and throat doctor. He said a CT scan would help him diagnose the problem, so that’s what brought me to radiology yesterday.

Now, I’ve had preventative X-rays of my teeth at the dentist office and regular mammograms, but I’ve never had a broken bone (knock on wood) that required X-rays, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The technician asked me to lie face-down on a table with my chin in a cushioned holder. I was instructed to keep still; the procedure would last 3 minutes.

First, she took an X-ray of my skull, so she would know where my frontal sinus cavities (above my eyes) were located and where to start the CT scan. I closed my eyes and was alerted by a whooshing noise that the procedure had begun. The table moved forward into a large ring. The ring uses rotating X-ray beams to create cross-sectional images of my head as it moves through the ring.

In what seemed like no time at all, the noise diminished and stopped. I was done. The procedure was quick and painless.

The technician said she took about 40 images in those 3 minutes. At my request, she took a few photos with my camera during the process. She’s been at her job for more than 20 years and has had two sinus surgeries herself, so she undoubtedly can recognize a deviated septum, blocked sinuses, polyps and other problems. But she is not allowed to comment on the scans. Reading them must be done by a radiologist, she said, who has 8 years more training.

I know nothing about reading X-rays, but that didn’t stop me from Googling “CAT scans of sinuses” to diagnose myself. I learned white areas are bone, black areas are air and gray areas are soft tissue or fluid.

Frankly, the effort to compare my X-rays to those online didn’t help my headache one bit. So I’ll need to be patient and wait until I can discuss the results with my ENT.

If my brief time in the radiology lab is any indication, I don’t have a lot to worry about. I was in and out of the lab in minutes. In fact, I was walking out the door before my scheduled appointment time.  Apparently, a CT scan can be done quickly if there’s not much there—good, bad or otherwise—to X-ray.

Want to know more about my 47 and fearless project? Check out my first post here.

et cetera