January 24, 2013

The Never-ending Lessons from 'The Eternal City'

It was an hour’s drive from the airport to the apartment in the city. The van driver was whistling an opera, making noises with his lips that were better suited for an orchestra than a mouth. The day was overcast, but 70 degrees (f) warmer than the -20 temperature I left on the plains. Nothing looked as I expected it to; the cars were so small and squeezed two or three to a lane designed for only one, the trees were new shapes and the architecture unfamiliar. A hectic menagerie of horns honked and beeped along with an increased ferocity as we got closer to our destination in Rome’s heart. The streets made no sense. For the first time in my life I had absolutely no idea which way was North.

The entire concept of foreign was completely unbeknownst to me.

I was 19, fresh off the farm, and three semesters into a university located in a town best known from a film by i fratelli Cohen (the Cohen brothers). The reality of people speaking a language other than English was something I had never truly experienced, each strange word making my mind flinch. It had never occurred to me that not everyone in the US grew up on a farm or went to a state school in a small city. I was baffled by the attitudes and insights of everyone who seemed to know some secret I had missed out on.

Our apartment was spacious with tall, plastered ceilings and large windows. It had the loveliest dining room table and a kitchen that barely fit two bodies. My roommates included a sweet southern belle, two bold and sassy best friends from Boston, an edgy girl from South Jersey, and a heartbroken adventurer from Rhode Island.

Within a week, my first impressions evaporated. Two months in, those girls became my best friends. Five years on, nothing much has changed with our relationship.

Studying abroad in one of the world’s most legendary cities inherently provoked plenty of clichés before I left North Dakota. Rome, after all, was where I was going to fall in love; where I was going to lose myself until I found out who I am.

In some way or another those clichés came true.

I did fall in love in Rome, with Rome.  I adored its dog shit covered cobblestones and its stubbornness to straddle a millennium of history, with one hand in Caesar’s era and the other hand Instagramming ancient wonders. It’s a city dripping with passion – every trattoria, SPQR-stamped cornerstone, and piazza is in a perpetual lovers’ embrace.  The Italian language is as graceful leaving your tongue as it is slipping into your ear. Every sensation in the city lends itself towards love and adoration.

I also got lost in Rome; almost daily and usually on accident. But I always managed to find my way back to my apartment. It was not the romanticized type of losing oneself, oh no. Up to that point, I had never been anywhere where I could legitimately lose my way. My dad engrained in me an internal compass so that I instinctually knew cardinal directions, but that compass was askew for quite some time. It was a huge accomplishment when I finally became ok with losing my way, knowing I’d always make it back.

At 19 I could to go into a bar, travel to other countries, and generally act however I felt without the knowing eyes of family and lifelong friends present. I drank screwdrivers and Sex on the Beach because I didn’t know what else was good whilst attempting to seduce Italian men with my devastatingly amazing language skills.  I danced until dawn, studied like crazy to pull off straight A’s, and threw myself into discussions on topics I had never bothered to express my opinion on prior.

Rome didn’t change me, it exposed me. In six short months, I discovered it was ok if I didn’t aspire to the same societal norms as many of my friends back home. The fear of the unknown transformed into a fascination with new experiences.

In some ways, these discoveries were kind of a curse. Had their existence remained a mystery, the future would have unfolded very differently. But they have engrained within me an insatiable curiosity to see and do more than what might be possible. Consequently, the idea of staying in one place for too long feels like settling rather than striving.

I crave more of those long drives from the airport to the city when the new air hits your face, the unfamiliar language lingers in your ears, and an expectedly unexpected landscape unfolds before your eyes.

Thank you, Rome, for introducing me to the rest of the world.

January 5, 2013

Spin cycle

It was miserable -- I couldn't breathe, my hands were slipping from sweat on the handle bars, and all I could stare at was the glowing green RPM number on the screen near my left knee.

"C'mon!" I thought, "What does it take to get you up to 105?"

The instructor was bouncing between singing to the upbeat tracks and spouting out inspirational nuggets,  "The only thing that's stopping you from success is yourself! You can do anything if you're willing to work for it!

"Ok, dude, I'm working my butt off," (literally, hopefully) and finally, finally! I hit 105!

"Hold it, last 15 seconds. Go!" the instructor shouted.

Feeling as though I was running for my life, the 15-second sprint seemed to take forever. But then as quickly as it started, it was finished and we were sitting down, clipping along at a brisk 85 RPM, catching our breath and prepping for the next set.

My friend and I received a few free classes from a boutiquey spin and barre studio in Seattle that opened recently and I had always wanted to try a spinning class. Flywheel sports is the cousin to the ultra-hip Soulcycle studio in New York. Soulcycle set itself apart with it's dark spinning room and intense life coach-like trainers who add the yoga concept of really being in the room and combine it with bumping music and loads of empowering life lessons.

Flywheel had all of those elements, along with super cool wall-mounted water taps that let you choose the temperature and Evolution Fresh juice samples ready after class, not to mention a friendly and helpful staff that helped calm the intimidation I was feeling. The studio was busy, and easily the average body fat percentage of the class was well below the national average. The room was filled with very fit folks, most of whom were in trendy (re: expensive) workout gear.

The class was a haven for Type A personalities. With a board in front ranking the bikes in order of who was working hardest, it's an easy place to get ultra competitive. Since the lights are turned down low, you don't have to look at anyone around you and can seriously get lost in the music and the trainer's words of wisdom.

Going into the class, I had heard about the high people feel post-spinning. It's the same rush of endorphins that come along after any intense exercise, but running and spinning seem to get the best reputations for the highest high.

Twenty minutes into class I was calling BS on the high. My legs were jello, my arms were in pain, and I just wanted it to be quiet. It was after I hit that low that I started feeding into the trainer's words without even realizing it.

"No one but you is going to know how hard you work, are you going to let yourself fail?" followed by, "Change can't come unless you're willing to challenge yourself and reach out of your comfort zone, how badly do you want to improve? GO!"

Ok, I'm going! I'm going! This. Is. Awesome!, as Nicki Minaj and Justin Beiber crooned in the background. 

About the time I finally let my mind go and really start having fun, class was over. Drenched in sweat and a little shaky, I gingerly walked over to my friend and we shared a moment of mutual "Wow, what was that?" followed almost immediately by "ufff da."

Will I do spinning class again? Definitely. That is of course, pending my ability to move tomorrow... it could hurt a little.
improve. explore.

January 3, 2013

Alleviating Uncertainty 15 Minutes at a Time

2013... it just sounds futuristic, much more so than 2011 or 2012 could ever muster. In fact, it hasn't been since 2009 or 2007 that a year has sounded new and modern that one can't help but think, "how the hell did we actually make it to this point in time?"

Well, maybe that's just the 12/21/12 apocalypse hangover still impacting my thoughts.

Really though, 2013 is starting out incredibly uncertain. We ran off the fiscal cliff roadrunner style, paused just past the ledge, and somehow congress pulled through. Asides from the cliff, there are a host of other prominent issues that are demanding the world's attention now and can't be ignored any longer.

I don't want to drag this post down with the million and one problems the world ought to solve this year, though. Uncertainty most often leads to change, which leads to growth, and ultimately opportunity. So this unknown feeling is a good thing, right?

My goal for 2013 is to tackle the unknown one itty bitty step at a time. After completing 30 consecutive days of bikram yoga a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I don't think I had ever done anything non-essential (i.e. eat, sleep, brush my teeth) every single day for as long as I had done bikram yoga.

The yoga was incredibly time-consuming, usually three hours had passed by the time I left my house from the moment when I finished showering. But I was committed and somehow it began fitting into my schedule with less effort because it just became another innate thing that I needed to do during the course of my day.

I want that philosophy to translate into other parts of my life, I want the things most easily procrastinated to become engrained in my daily routine. Each 15-minute or hour long chunk of time is a step taken to solve my personal uncertainties, while also hopefully aiding the uncertainties of those around me. Collectively, our tiny actions might spur something bigger.

Here are the small things that I intend to do every single day throughout the course of the next year:

  1. Write.
  2. Study: Mandarin lessons, coursera.org, guitar lessons... bring it!
  3. Move: exercise is good for so much more than just a tight bod
  4. Share: stories, food, resources
  5. Listen: one can't learn without first listening
Small steps to alleviate big uncertainty... cheers to a new year!