Sunday, December 16, 2012

Angst vor Reflexionen

This blog post was going to have a carefully crafted introduction, but as I was sitting in my dimly-lit plane seat from Vienna to Frankfurt, wedged between a Norwegian woman and her morbidly obese and distinctly smelly husband (approximately 20% of whom was overflowing into my seat in all ways possible), I lost all hope :-). I remember putting my backpack in the luggage compartment, looking down at the seats, and then my jaw dropping to accompany the blank stare on my face. The first (and only) thing that came to my mind was to ask whether they might want to swap places so that they could travel next to each other, but my pretension to innocence did not persuade the poor woman. She declined with such a candid Poker smile that I had no choice but to sigh and squeeze in, thinking to myself that she's good and comforting myself with the fact that I'm likely neither the first nor the last individual whose personal space these two have violated.

Last week saw me through the beginning of a rather strange case of cabin fever. Cambridge is, by all means, one of the best and most productive places I've ever lived in, but you can have too much of a good thing. My final week before the end of lectures in Cambridge was nothing short of a rat race to meet remaining deadlines, an effort which ended up wearing me down far worse than I would feel comfortable to admit. Strangely enough, when I think of deadlines, it's not the work that gets me. I love my work, and once I'm in the right mindset, I usually am efficient. It's what happens after the submission that gives me angst: that feeling that you've put your life on hold and should somehow make up for the week, that feeling of healthy energy that makes you want to go out, buy Christmas lights and treat yourself to some good coffee and honest, involved conversation that makes you lose track of time. It is this energy that pushes you to clean your room at 6:00 o'clock in the morning and that makes papers temporarily reflect off of your cortex.

More often than not, though, your good mood ends up simply being shot down by frustration when you realize that despite all efforts you invest, having yourself a good time is actually made a lot harder than it's supposed to be. Without realizing, a chilling thought sprouts at the back of your mind: "What am I doing? Is this pathetic? Why did I bother?". And then the joy slips into a feeling of acute general unease and you simmer for days in your belief that some sort of injustice is unfolding, and that it's not in your power to change things (or worse yet, other people).

It was in this slightly angry and claustrophobic state that I found myself waiting on the curb for the 797 bus to Heathrow three days ago, at 3:00 o'clock in the morning. I was occasionally jumping up and down in the dark to warm up, but otherwise assumed an inertial pose: raised collar, tucked scarf, headphones pushed deep in my ears, volume maxed on the music, hands in my pockets, eyes looking strictly below the 45 degrees angle so as not to risk being bothered by anyone. Later on that day, stepping down in Vienna was a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe it didn't have to be Vienna in particular, but I realized that I needed to get away.

I was truly happy to meet Stephanie on the first evening and catch up over a beer, and to the sound of a live band, but my joy was neither about the band, nor the beer - it simply had been too long since we'd met and this was a confirmation for me that there are people in your life who don't end up disappearing. When I bought a cup of melange and a baked apple dusted with cinnamon from a street vendor, it wasn't the sweets I was buying: it was really the comfort of cheerful Christmas memories and my grandmother's baking which I grew up with, and the assurance that I can still enjoy these feelings regardless of how old I am. Alas, it wasn't the food which I remember from the meals we had during the conference, but the discussions with Virginia, Dimitar and Prof. Turner, which led to my downloading and reading "Animal Farm" by George Orwell later on that same night - amazing book, by the way; I wish someone had told me to read this as a child.

As I was leaning back in my chair on the way to the airport, I was staring at how the window reflexion of the inside of the train was overlaying (and partly obscuring) the city lights shining through from the other side of the glass, and thinking away in the night. It really is hard to see the beauty of the outside world if you let your inner troubles cover it up with unfounded projections.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Die ganze Hundert

I did two things that I am very proud of today.

For one, I've finished with the final coursework deadline for the remainder of December. It was nice to finally be able to put away the piles of drafts, notes, scribbled print-outs, and books that had prevented me from seeing the surface of my desk for weeks. Being in possession of a newly found inner peace, I took the time to organize the lecture handouts in chronological order, punch holes into them and bind them in separate folders. Hell, I even wiped the dust off the bookshelves! I've always been fascinated with the amount of patience and tranquility that takes over me when I've finally finished some piece of work that I am happy with.

My cleaning spree didn't last very long though,... mainly because there's only so much dust you can wipe in one room. I contemplated taking the vacuum cleaner out of the pantry for a moment, and inflicting my OCD on the carpet, but a quick look at my phone confirmed that maybe this wouldn't be the appropriate thing to do at, you know... 6:25am. Apparently, crashing Luana's after-party at Churchill for a beer with the guys and a round of a board games last night was still no match for an episode of my insomnia. I went to sleep at 2:00 and subsequently woke up at 4:00, and that was it.

Lacking any further ideas, I put on some chill-out music and turned to the calendar to see what my day would look like. For the first time in two months, there was next to nothing on it (in my calendar's defense, it was Sunday after all; the rest of the week is still packed). However, I did burst into a smile when I saw the "Final Test - 100" title of the day's single event, staring back at me from the screen in bold typeface. I rolled up my sleeves, got on the floor, and let out to myself:

"OK, Adrian... this is it. Let's do this!"

Today, for the first time in my life, and after nine weeks of training, I did one hundred consecutive, correct push-ups :-).

I'm guessing by now, my average reader will have said something along the lines of "I think I can do about N." Who knows, perhaps some of you will even try to see how many you can do. And then, perhaps you will wonder why this is worth a blog post, and how much of a self-confident prick I must be for wanting to show off. Where am I getting at, anyway?

I'm not saying I did 100 push-ups because I want to show off. I'm saying it because I want to tell you that you can do it, too.

 *  *  *

The first time this challenge came up in a conversation that I had with Marek at work this summer, I asked myself the one thing that I always ask myself when people tell me that something is hard: Well, yeah, I believe you that it's hard, but just how hard can it be?

Others have obviously done it before, so what's to stop me from following in their footsteps? I don't mean without proper training, of course, but there's nothing eventually unattainable for the average person in 100 push-ups. Say one push-up takes 2 seconds, then the whole thing should take about three to four minutes. Can it really be that hard to exert yourself for four minutes?!

The first time I tried I could barely do 30. And I was expecting that. So then I thought... well, if I followed a training schedule, and every week I tested (and forced) myself to do 5 more than the week before, then I'm bound to hit 100 at some point, right? I looked online and within 20 minutes, I found myself this training schedule. The only thing you need to do is set aside half an hour, three times a week. Anyone can follow some instructions on a training plan, they've broken it down for you to the point where it's brain-dead! So why doesn't everyone?

There's one more thing separating the "can"s and the "do"s in this world: commitment. You will get to 100, if you stick to the schedule, because numbers do not lie. But that's only if you stick to the schedule. If you really want to do it, you can, but there have to be no excuses, and no exceptions. You train three times a week, period.

In my case, pushing my physical limits never had anything to do with setting records. Many people can do way better than I ever have done at these things. What I'm really doing is enforcing discipline, and reaffirming that my brain controls my body, rather than the other way around. Your chest may burn, your elbows may shake, you may feel like you're about to die, but you must never forget that your muscles have no mind of their own. If you are willing to ignore all that, and if your brain is determined to send the signal down your spine, then your muscles will contract, and you will do another push-up. It is in that position that you finally get to know yourself. It is the addiction of needing to prove yourself to yourself that keeps the people in this video doing what they do.

To me, straining myself is simply a journey of self-discovery, and a source of self-respect. When I first started running 10Ks in 8th grade, a friend of mine who was very good at running told me something that I believe really sums it up:

"When you've just done your 15th lap and you feel like you can't run any further... that's when the track actually begins, and when you make the decision of whether you're going to finish or quit. Everything up to that point was just... warm-up."

So I guess, it's up to you now... :-).