Wednesday, May 04, 2022

It Just Takes Time

I've been an active runner for a long time. As I explained a few years ago in My Running Habit, I never ran long distances as a kid, but eased into increasingly longer runs as an adult. Now I typically run over 20 miles every week. It keeps me somewhat sane, and even more than somewhat physically fit.

Something I consistently hear from new runners is how they wish they could be enthusiastic about it, but it's just too damned hard. Like, grueling hard. It physically hurts. I remember that feeling. Faced with such negative consequences, what is the incentive to keep pushing ahead, trying to eke out another 100 yards, let alone another mile?

But something many new runners don't appreciate is that it gets a LOT easier. So much so, that when you're well-conditioned, running six miles is as easy as running three, or even one. For some range of relatively low mileage runs, adding a few extra miles only takes a little more time. Thus running becomes an incredible machine that takes time and converts it into well-being, physical fitness, and because it's a consideration for some of us, calorie consumption. As hard as it might be to get started, there's a reason for expressions such as "runner's high" and "second wind." At some point not only does running stop hurting, it becomes actively enjoyable. That's the real prize.

As lucky as I am to be on the other side of the beginner/experienced canyon with running, there are tons of other ambitions I have in life that I either put off completely, or only weakly pursue. Why? Just like running, they're all too damned hard. Any of us who try new things will inevitably face the humbling experience that the effort seems too great and the the result not rewarding enough. So we slam the guitar case shut, put the calculus book back on the shelf, or lose the gumption to join a chess club or take a pottery class.

For all the things you're not good enough at yet that it feels easy, there are undoubtedly other things that you have crossed the chasm with, so to speak. Things that are gruelingly hard for others, but that you find to be no big deal. As you look towards the things that you find harder, try to remember that there was a time when those things were hard for you too. You got better, and you'll get better at something else, too. Maybe running. Or piano, or calculus, or chess, or pottery! It just takes time.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

My College Application Essay

I was digging through old files, and found the essay I wrote when I was applying for admission to UC Santa Cruz. I was a student at Cabrillo College, a community college in the area. I had been studying for around 3 years after dropping out of high school at the age of 15.

I didn't look to anybody for advice about writing college essays. Nobody proofread it. I cringe at some of the writing, but overall I think it's pretty good. Or, at least it's me.

Presented with only minor typographical corrections and without many regrets:

An unending flow of questions and concerns punctuated my breathing as I made my way to school on my first day in the tenth grade. I found myself traveling not by a conventional youth method (bicycling, skateboarding, etc) but as a small part in a gigantic rolling ball of confusion.

My biggest concerns were based on peer approval, and at the time it would seem that even succeeding in wearing the right color socks would be enough to make my day a good one. I started the tenth grade as I had started every other year of my public education career, but in short time I made many changes to the physical and mental realities in my life. Through an ongoing exercise of introspection, I came to know myself more honestly than I ever had before, and, using this is a catalyst for change, altered my priorities and left high school for higher education at Cabrillo College.

Before that major turning point, I had spent most of my free time worrying what other people thought of me. I daydreamed about befriending the right person, and having my dull, meaningless life magically transformed into one of meaning, excitement, and most importantly, popularity. I considered myself cursed; every time I even began to become friends with someone, he would inevitably abandon me at the request of his more important friends. Evidently, they saw me as some kind of social leper, with a disease so potent, that if contracted, could reduce each of their lives to the same ruined shambles mine lay in. Indeed, my social standing seemed irreparable, and after countless iterations of this same scenario, I had all but resigned to being content with a life of melancholy.

In my loneliness, I looked to my hobby of computers as an escape, as I had done throughout my childhood. Even at the onset of my computer days, when playing video games was the extent to which I used them, the computer was always responsive to to my loving [key]strokes. As the years passed, and the methods with which I communicated to the computer became less exciting, I would supplement my arsenal of computer skills with something new to hold my interest. By the tenth grade, I had learned to write my own computer programs, was somewhat familiar with the hardware (machinery) side of the hobby, and had even started making use of the computer facilities at UCSC. The multi-user social computer environment at UCSC was especially fascinating for me, because I could practice social skills with which I had remained deficient in the real world.

In the first month of the tenth grade, I had become friends with someone who had just returned from a year of studying in Finland. He had been an acquaintance before he left, but we'd never had anything much in common. While staying in Finland, he had become involved in the punk-rock music scene, and when he returned to the United States, he introduced me to some of the music he had started listening to. He gave me a tape on which he'd compiled several songs by four classic punk-rock bands: NoMeansNo, DOA, The Misfits, and the Dead Kennedys. I listened to the tape once and was not impressed; the songs were loud, obnoxious, and seemed void of any musical value.

I listened again though, and yet again, and each time I listened I heard something new from the music that appealed to my ears and mind. The noise had actually started to sound like music and as my mind caught up with the tempo, I was able to make out some of the words. The messages that came through the words were like aural candy for my ears! Finally I had found a breed of music that was expressing what I had always felt in my heart. As if they had used my life as a model, the lyrics confirmed to me the hardships of growing up and living in an often emotionally callous society. Inspired by this small collection of songs, I began to feverishly search for more of the same. To say that punk-rock music played a vital part in the transformation of my insecure, self loathing mind into a thinking, optimistic one would be an understatement. Using the spirit of punk-rock music as a road atlas to my own mind, I began the life-long journey toward fulfillment and happiness, stopping only for sightseeing along the way.

With a new self respect and dedication to self improvement, I made the decision that acceptance by my high school peers was insignificant, and accepting myself was what mattered in the long run. Pessimistic about the chances of making good friends in high school, I looked to expand on the small group of older friends I'd made through the University's computer system. In this endeavor I was quite successful and started spending most of my spare time with friends at least four years my senior. Noticing that my friends were mostly college aged, and being very advanced in my studies, I decided it would be in my best interest to leave Santa Cruz High School and enroll at Cabrillo Community College.

At the present time, two and a half years later, I think that my decision to move on to college was perhaps the wisest decision I've ever made. At Cabrillo College, I've been able to study subjects unavailable in high school and have made many new friends while becoming more and more involved with the computer community at UCSC. For the last few years I've been involved with an organization at UCSC called COAC (Council for Open Access Computing, which works to make computer facilities on campus available to the general student populace), of which I was recently elected to the executive committee. While my computer interests have continued to grow, I've also found new interest in many fields, including art, politics, and philosophy. When I consider where I might be today had I not been inspired to pursue happiness in the ways I've narrated in this essay, I grimace at the frustration I would likely be experiencing. I am relieved but not surprised that the choices I made turned out for the best, and would certainly offer them as options for others in situations similar to the one I was in.

The essay worked. Or they let me in anyway. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1995 at the age of 20.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Start Digging

If you're anything like me, you probably have some amount of trouble keeping up with your tasks. I usually fluctuate between being "moderately on top of things" and "OMG I am so not on top of things" and "I'm completely overwhelmed and can't do anything."

For many years I have used OmniFocus to manage my tasks, which has been a great help. Just getting everything I have to do in one place is the first step in tackling each item one at a time. Still, when the list of "To Do" items gets too large, it can get really hard to dig myself out from under the weight of all the obligations. It's hard to pick even one item to take a crack at.

When I'm in this overwhelmed state, it helps to think of myself as being buried in sand. An individual grain of sand is trivial to move, but the weight of a million grains of sand can make it feel hopeless to even try.

Imagine you're buried all the way up to your neck. Both arms are almost completely submerged, and only your hands extend above the surface. Take it a step farther: maybe only your little finger breaks the surface. The work of moving sand with that one finger is overwhelming, the results seem not worth the effort, yet the only way to make any progress at all is to keep at it.

Progress will be slow at first, but as you free up space to move, a second finger starts to pitch in. Pretty soon a hand, and then a whole arm, which proceeds to free the other arm.

Making progress frees up energy to make more progress. Eventually, you're scooping up sand, two handfuls at a time, and your torso is free. Time to start working on those legs...

Where this metaphor breaks down for me is I don't know if I've ever really gotten my legs free, but I keep trying. Merely gaining back the use of my hands and arms is an incredible feeling, and so much better than being buried up to my head.

Start digging.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Hour of Code

I'm a parent of elementary school kids, aged 6 and 9. I volunteer in many aspects of my kids' school, but among the most rewarding of these experiences have been the times I've volunteered for our school's Hour of Code event.

Lack of diversity in the tech industry is a systemic problem and nobody has yet figured out how to solve it. But events like Hour of Code seem to be doing a good job fighting for a solution.

The most amazing thing, for me, about volunteering for Hour of Code, is seeing the looks on kids' faces when they realize "they can code." They're invited to the party, and they know it. That's golden.

Having volunteered for several years, I've seen that look on the faces of kids of every gender, race, and cultural background. They all get it. They all feel empowered. They're all excited by the prospect of learning this skill, and contributing their abilities to the many problems that coding can help to solve.

My kids' school runs its "Hour of Code" event off-schedule, to avoid traffic conflicts with other schools who use the resources from the official home page.

I'll be volunteering next week, and I'm looking forward to seeing that look on the faces of kids in our school. If you have the luxury of offering some of your own time, I hope you'll also consider starting, or joining, an "Hour of Code" initiative at your own kids' school!