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On Fitness and Exhaustion

Yesterday morning I went to my first cycling class at the YMCA. It was amazing. And hard. And fun. And pretty sweaty, too. And did I mention hard? I think I could actually feel the individual strands of my leg muscles contracting and releasing. I’ve heard stories of the intensity of the infamous cycling class before, but since our Y is fairly small and the Saturday morning selections slim, I decided to give it a try. (And, honestly, I was a bit curious to see if I could withstand the class.) I’m happy to say: I can’t wait to go back again tomorrow!

Cycling class is pretty straight forward. You hop on a stationary bike and adjust resistance and speed as the instructor dictates. I’ve heard that some instructors “simulate” an outdoor riding experience by saying things like, “you’re on a steep hill now… now you can see the top of the hill… etc. Our instructor’s directions were more like, “Alright, turn it up another gear. Let’s climb for 5 minutes! Now add one more gear, stand up and sprint for 4 minutes!” Then on to more climbs, and more sprints, over and over, all the while increasing our gears. I swear, it was like she was inexhaustible. I’m pretty sure my fellow 8 a.m. cyclists were all at least twice my age, but seeing them pedaling away in unison with their super toned, bike shorts-clad legs was good motivation to get myself moving. And to keep going all the way into old age!

I must be honest, though. In between all the instructions to increase resistance and use our abs to hold our bodies centered above the bike, we were receiving a good bit of encouragement to continue pushing through. Statements like “Earn your recovery!” and “Give me 101%; this is your last chance to give it everything!” (although we did end up with quite a few “last chances”…) and a lot of “Come on!” interspersed throughout. In fact, our instructor even led us to believe at one point that we  only had to get through 3 more sprints, only to then tell us to increase resistance and get ready for another 2 rounds of sprints. She said she didn’t want us holding back, thinking we needed to save our energy for the next round. And you know what–we all found it in us to keep going!

It made me think of a quote I heard a while back from a professional runner who said that if at the end of his run, he still had more energy, he knew he didn’t run hard enough. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to adopt this outlook on life in general. Ending each day on empty, actually relying on the night’s rest to fuel up for the next morning. There are certainly days where I fall into bed at night feeling accomplished and satisfied knowing I made good use of the time I was given. But some days. . . not so much.

According to the Strength Finders assessment, one of my top strengths is that I am an “achiever.” They describe this trait as one who has “a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by “every day” you mean every single day — workdays, weekends, vacations. No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied. . . Your relentless need for achievement might not be logical. It might not even be focused. But it will always be with you. As an Achiever you must learn to live with this whisper of discontent. It does have its benefits. It brings you the energy you need to work long hours without burning out. It is the jolt you can always count on to get you started on new tasks, new challenges. It is the power supply that causes you to set the pace and define the levels of productivity for your work group. It is the theme that keeps you moving.”

I can definitely see this to be true in myself, particularly in the fact that I cannot stand it if I spend an entire day lying around and not accomplishing anything. But there is a difference in idle busy work, done just for the sake of doing something, and intentional, focused, hard work that empties your mental and physical energy reserves. One produces burn-out, and the other can produce a rhythm that feeds and fuels itself. The thing I’m still learning about rhythms is that they require down time, too. I’m a work in progress, trying to figure out how to balance the two.

In any case, this week–I’m going to try to give it all, every day. In cycling class, in work, in relationships, in learning.

And this is just a wild guess, but I think I’m going to sleep like a baby every night, too.

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Lessen your sorrows

“All sorrows are less with bread. ” 

-Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (I am totally on the same page with Miguel here… although I might be slightly picky/snobbish/discretionary about my bread these days.)

I have decided that one of my skills to develop this year will be bread making. Mostly, because I can hardly imagine a better pleasure than to be a master of bread making, to be able to confidently knead a lump of dough into perfection, to be rewarded with the luxury of a quality loaf whenever the fancy strikes.

I’m not sure what my first experience with bread making was, but I believe it might have been with my Oncle Willie, my grandfather’s older brother and the local baker in the small Swiss town of our origin. He had developed a top secret family recipe for making zopf, a fluffy, buttery, rich white braided bread traditional to Sunday morning breakfasts. Oncle Willie was insistent that the proper way to indulge was with a thick slathering of butter and perhaps some jam on top. One summer morning while staying with Oncle Willie, he taught us the art of zopf. Gathered around the table in their sunny kitchen, looking out across the backyard garden and green fields beyond, he led us through the various stages of mixing the dough and kneading it.

The reward for correctly braiding the two-stranded bread on the first try would be one franc. Neither my sister or I were able to, but he still gave us our reward anyways. Although the true reward was enjoying the fruits of our labor after the bread had completed its rises and time in the oven.

Over the following years, I continued to make zopf from time to time for traditional Sunday morning breakfasts. Eventually, I had worked up enough skill to have a dependable outcome, but the first several tries were shots in the dark with varied results. This was one of those recipes where you heat the milk until “it feels this hot” and knead until “it feels like this”. In any case, it was the beginning of a new hobby, and I have since branched out to a variety of breads, rolls, bagels, flat breads, etc.

I am now curious to know more of the science behind the bread. How the ingredients interact in different ways, how the gluten develops, how to troubleshoot on my own, and how to manipulate recipes and create my own.

My most recent endeavors to understanding bread making have involved whole wheat challah, pita bread, and a whole wheat no-knead sandwich bread. (As much as I love kneading bread, I want to have a reliable no-knead option in my repertoire.)

The challah was by far the most experimental of the three. I want to work on it some more, and I’ll post about it once I’ve perfected it. Don’t worry about having to wait for too long though–it is already pretty darn good. Absolutely the most pillow-y bread I have ever eaten. Ever. So good. I don’t have any pictures of my loaf but it was based off this recipe, minus the blackberries, so you can use your imaginations.

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I’ve made a mistake!

Or have I?

Just watched this TED talk recently (and you should too–it’s only about 3 minutes long), and it made me think about this project. Or really, it made me think about how poorly I’ve been doing at meeting my original goals and wonder if telling people about it is the/a factor of my un-success. I’ll let you watch the talk and decide for yourself.

In any case, I also recently read The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and he writes a lot about energy management. (As opposed to “time management” which we all hear enough about.) It was really enlightening. I’m sure I could fill a whole post just with wisdom gleaned from that book so I won’t go into detail here, but I’m considering ways to integrate the practices he describes in his book with this project. I think it could really create a great blend that will work for my professional and personal growth.

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My WanderList

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Man. This is harder than I was expecting! So far I’ve read two books and am partially through a third one….

I’ve not listened to a single podcast, The Economist still hasn’t started arriving, and I’m not even thinking about countries or capitals of the world.

In an attempt to salvage this project before it crashes and burns right at the start, I’m determined to come up with something substantial for this post so I can say with good conscience that I have blogged this week.

I suppose I have been thinking a lot about the traveling portion of this experience, so I’ll start a list of dream places to visit.

WanderList:

Morocco– I have it in my head that Morocco will be one amazing marketplace after another.

Benin– I’d love to see some of west Africa,  the places my grandparents spent their lives, and raised their children.

Sahara Desert– Crossing this in a van with new-found friends sounds like a great idea, right, Mom?? 🙂

Egypt– Ever since sitting through many a French class with my Egyptian professor, where we ended up talking about politics, religion, and Egypt almost as much as French, I have been wanting to go see Cairo.

East African Safari– Isn’t this on everyone’s bucket list, though?

Jordan– Petra, anyone?

Lebanon– Reading “Children of Jihad” by Jared Cohen sparked this one.

Israel– The Holy Land for three major world religions–can only imagine how amazing it would be in person.

India– Everyone says you can’t go to India without leaving a changed person. At least everyone on the travel blogs…

Thailand– This has been on the list for as long as I can remember. The people! The landscape! The food!

New Zealand– For so many reasons.

Peru– A couple months language study, perhaps?

Brazil– I’m out of reasons. But why not?

I’ve been subscribing to BootsnAll’s email campaign for planning a RTW (Round the World) trip in 30 days, so I get daily emails to help plan everything from methods of travel to how to tell your family, friends, and bosses. One of the first things you’re supposed to do is pick the “pillars” of the trip–the things you absolutely must see or do. Perhaps sometime in the next year I’ll narrow this list down for the pillars. But for now, I’m dreaming big!

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First Day of School

Labor Day… the day we celebrate the official end to the dog days of summer. A reward to ourselves for working hard, staying indoors in our offices while children and students have spent the last few months running free in the sunshine. (Not that I’m bitter or anything…) It was two years ago today that I began my final year of university, and now as I sit in a Starbucks back in that same college town, I both celebrate the fact that I’m on vacation and not in class today, and feel a twinge of jealousy that university is over for me.

I love learning, I love reading, I love sitting in lectures, and I love the idea of going back to school. However, my bank account and indecisive nature have ruled out grad school for my immediate future. So imagine my delight when I stumbled across Chris Guillebeau’s plan for “The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience.” A way to introduce discipline to my independent “studies”–and pretend I’m still a student! Brilliant.

I immediately (albeit unofficially) signed myself up, and began planning my studies. It seemed natural to begin at the start of the school year, so today marks the beginning of my journey. My commitments are outlined below, and I’m excited to share my experiences and gained knowledge throughout this next year.  Hopefully this blog will be a means of holding myself accountable to stick with it until next September, and a good memento of what this year will hold. (And it fulfills one of my requirements.) Feel free to  leave comments, suggestions, encouragement, inspiration, etc. And now, without further ado, the plan for this year:

The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience (The text in blue is from Chris’ plan; the black is my comments and/or modifications.)

  • Subscribe to the Economist and read every issue religiously. Cost: $97 + 60 minutes each week. I’m  a little worried about how well I will do at reading this magazine every week, as anything financial feels a little beyond me, but it appears they cover more than economics so I’m going to make the best of it! 
  • Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. Cost: $0 + 3-4 hours once. Is Chris crazy?? It will take me much more than 3-4 hours to be able to do this. My plan is to buy this shower curtain (and use Sharpie to add in the Pres/PM names) so I can work on it while I shower. (Got to love multi-tasking!) 
  • Buy a Round-the-World plane ticket or use Frequent Flyer Miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia. Cost: variable, but plan on $4,000. I am BY FAR the most excited about this requirement. More on this in a future post!
  • Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha. Visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple. Cost: Materials can be obtained free online or in the mail—or for less than $50 + 20 hours. I’m also pretty excited about this requirement. I’ve already read the Torah and New Testament, so although I will continue to read from them for personal study, I think I might track down a book or two on Judaism to read in addition. I also want to visit the Christian Science church and Spiritual Community Gathering that meet in my town in addition to the mosque, synagogue, and temple. I’m also taking a night class on Islam which starts in a couple weeks. 
  • Subscribe to a language-learning podcast and listen to each 20-minute episode five times a week for the entire year. Attend a local language club once a week to practice. Cost: $0 + 87 hours. I’ve found a variety of French podcasts to try out over the next year. I’ve done a good bit of French study in the past, but I’ve already lost a lot of it due to not practicing. And since there isn’t a French language club in my area, I might just call my parents up to speak in French with them once a week. (Which I’m sure is making you happy, Mom and Dad.) 
  • Loan money to an entrepreneur through Kiva.org and arrange to visit him or her while you’re abroad. Cost: Likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid. Generosity with my resources is definitely important to me, but I want to do some research on Kiva before making any commitments to this one… I’m sure I will have a post about it in the future. 
  • Acquire at least three new skills during your year. Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts. The key is not to become an expert in any of them, but to become functionally proficient. Cost: Variable, but each skill is probably less than three credits of tuition would cost at a university. Still deciding on what exactly these three will be. I’m open to suggestions! Things I have considered are web design, bread making, figure drawing, videography, clothing design, piano. I already have a basic knowledge in most of those things, but “proficient” is probably a stretch. 
  • Read at least 30 non-fiction books and 20 classic novels. Cost: approximately $750 (can be reduced or eliminated by using the library). Totally planning on eliminating this cost and taking advantage of my library. I’ve started my list of classic novels already, which I’ll post about soon. Still working on my list of non-fictions.
  • Join a gym or health club to keep fit during your rigorous independent studies. (Most universities include access to their fitness centers with the purchase of $32,000 in tuition, so you’ll need to pay for this on your own otherwise.) Cost: $25-75 a month. Planning on joining my local YMCA, which is only a few blocks from my apartment. Hopefully this will serve as additional motivation to get over there in the long, cold winter months when all I want to do is stay huddled inside! 
  • Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills. Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is beginner-friendly. Cost: $25 + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks. I don’t know why, but I’m wary of going to the Toastmasters club.  But in good faith, I’ve looked up the details for the one in my town. I think I will try to go at least 10 times. Unless it’s really weird. In which case all bets are off. 
  • Start a blog, create a basic posting schedule, and stick with it for the entire year. You can get a free blog at WordPress.org. One tip: don’t try to write every day. Set a weekly or bi-weekly schedule for a while, and if you’re still enjoying it after three months, pick up the pace. Cost: $0. Obviously, I’ve already started this one.
  • Set your home page to http://wikipedia.org/random. Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you’ll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it. Cost: $0. 1st, that is not the correct link to access a random Wikipedia page. This is what you will need if you want to check it out yourself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:RandomPage 2nd, I just “learned” about Juan Rafael Mendez. The wiki about him is pleasantly short, although I doubt I will ever remember anything I read about him. I suppose over the next 365 days I will hopefully retain at least some things I read. 
  • Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and buying Bird by Birdby Anne Lamott. Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.
  • Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know It All by A.J. Jacobs, a good summary. Cost: $15.

TOTAL COST: $10,000 or less

Well, that’s about it for now. I need to get back to reading my first book for the project. Book review to be coming soon!

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