Recently, this little comic from the Oatmeal, titled “The Terrible & Wonderful Reasons why I run Long Distance” popped up on several friends’ newsfeeds.

It’s a very good piece, and if you are a runner yourself, or maybe a biker, or maybe a swimmer, or maybe just a person, or maybe even a cat of the internet, you should check it out. With the simplest of drawings, it captures very well the essence of an amateur runner.

I myself don’t run in the way that the narrator of this comic runs. I run when it’s nice outside, I run when I’m frustrated, I run when I’m angry, and I run when I’m lost. But I run very rarely, and never do I run fast enough, or long enough, to reach euphoria. My running is always solo, always complentative, and never has it silenced the noise in my head. Very often, it smoothes tangled knots out– if only by virtue of making myself feel healthy and sunkissed again.

Recently, I started dancing again. I’ve been dancing since I was five. When I was three, I watched my older sister’s ballet performance and begged my mom to be onstage, too. I love to move, and I love to dance, and in a way dance is a healing process– after 10 years of competitive gymnastics, I love the feeling of being onstage without having my every step marked by point deductions.

In a moment of sheer luck, I’ve discovered a rare gem: the Manhattan dance studio that is relatively affordable, air-conditioned, spacious, and most elusive of all, not filled with judgemental, competitive, rail-thin preprofessional teenagers waiting to eat me up.

The dancers at this studio are very talented. The instructor is friendly and experienced. But best of all, this class– twice a week, an hour-and-a-half each– whips the my ass. And it also whips my abs, and my arms, and my calves, and my thighs, and most importantly, my brain.

When I enter the studio directly after work, there’s a million thoughts running through my head. Is it bad that I left work before 7? Did I slack off too much today? Will I finish my summer project in time? Do I need a Ph.D? Am I ever going to be a good scientist? Is the world driven by chance or does it have a telos? Is it possible to be both intellectually conscious and happy?

But twenty minutes into class, I’m struggling just to breathe, as this killer warm-up asks me to do thirty more sit-ups, forty more crunches. Bass beats rivet off the ceiling, and sweat drips off my nose.

“I’ve always considered the question to be ‘Why am I alive? Why am I here? What’s the point of me? And to that I say: WHO CARES! FORGET THE WHY YOU ARE IN A RAGING FOREST FULL OF BEAUTY AND AGONY…THIS IS BETTER THAN THE WHY. I run because I seek that clarity”, says the little stick figure in the Oatmeal comic.

There is only one reason why I dance. I want, I crave, I need a better way to express myself. (Sometimes, I wish I could sing louder, clearer, just so I could belt it out like Christina Aguilera in Burlesque at the end of a long work day in my little-town-accidentally-sexy waitress outfit. And then become a professional performer with Cher.)

I’m not a great dancer, by any means. Sure, I can bust a few moves at a party. I’m relatively in shape, I’ve been dancing a long time, and most of all I Love it With All My Heart. I’m a slow learner, I’m a little off-beat, but by show time I’m giving it my all.

Sometimes, dancing makes me feel very small and adolescent again, while I watch the slim beautiful girls at Barnard and Columbia in my dance group rule the stage with their wonderful years of ballet training and their illuminating stage prescence. And when that happens, the voice of my fourteen-year-old self is telling me again that I’m not thin enough, not blonde enough, and just so damn awkward.

But goddamit, sometimes I like that. Sometimes it’s good to worry so much about things that my Computer Science classmates would find trivial, to feel small and nerdy and inadequate again, to feel the ruthless female competition of beauty and grace. Sometimes it’s good to want so much to be good at something that isn’t just a desk job.

It’s a struggle, and so much work, just to be able to express one-tenth of what I want to say in my movement. But in that moment when I’m finally on the beat, and not stumbling over my own feet, I never feel so much alive.

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As maybe a few of you know, I had a rather interesting adolescence training as a competitive Rhythmic Gymnast for 10 years of my life. this included summer training camps in Canada and Russia, along with 20 hours a week of practice in middle school and other such crazy experiences. As it was occasionally traumatizing, most of the time I prefer to shove these memories in the back of my mind. However, sometimes, I do stumble upon them, and think of various things I’ve gained and/or lost from this decade of my life. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned, so that you don’t have to repeat this long and strenous process yourself:

1. If a new leader steps in with a cult-inducing personality and tries above all to tout the nationality of their homeland, you should probably be wary.

2. Cliche, but still not stated enough: you can only really excel at doing something if and when you love what you do. This does not mean that the practice has to come easily; often, challenges are essential to enjoyment. However, make sure that the issues you are fighting are worthy pursuits.

3. The toughest enemy you will ever battle will be the one in your own head. The toughest opponent you will ever struggle with will be that of your own body, even if you are a 5-foot tall gymnast.

4. The relentless pursuit of perfectionism is lethal. The enjoyment of life and culture is not only pleasant, but has great artistic and social worth.

5. On the flip side, having faced enough drama and politics within a childhood to last a lifetime, when anyone tries to give me trouble now, I just make like Beyonce and think this.

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Olympics Mania

03 Aug 2012

Today I wanted to bring a little attention to an article that recently caught my eye. It’s a piece based off an interview with Dominique Moceanu, the youngest American, at age 14, to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. The article is part of a series, “Tell Me When It’s Over”, in which former athletes speak about the moment in which they realized their careers were finished.

Moceanu does not mince any words. I am not sure when the interview was conducted, but there is something almost child-like and innocent in how straightforward she is in relaying the alterior motives and politics in which her pure love of the sport was inevitbly intertwined. “[I]t was never the competition that frightened me”, Moceanu recalls. “The hard part is the self-serving adults who wanted to use me as a means to an end”. She then recounts how she was constantly belittled and abused after being taken under the wings of the world-famous Karolyis at the age of ten. The road to her Olympic gold was by no means easy, and even after victory there were no signs of gratitude from her coaches.

Accompanying the writing is a photograph of Moceanu at fourteen. Her leotard is white and her cheeks are still round with the slightest hint of baby fat. I long to reach out and give her a hug, even though I know that in real life she is near thirty now, because I know how it is. I think that anyone who was ever deeply and emotionally involved with a sport–especially one that relies on images of perfecition and beauty– has a lens into a whole different rabbit hole.

I’ll never know exactly what it is that motivates some coaches to act in this way.* Maybe it’s tradition: the Russian Way, or the Bulgarian Way, or the Chinese Way is the way your ancestors did it, it’s the way sponsored by the government, and it’s the only way. Or perhaps the reasoning is empirical: harassing and hammering perfection into children is surely one way to make them obey. It doesn’t work on everyone, for sure, especially those with weak nerves, but for some, it ignites a cold and dangerous fire inside. I don’t think these men and women view what they do as wrong, for they are focused on creating champions, not well-balanced and stable human beings. Coaches are mysterious and private people, and the more vicious and crazy and flawed they are, the harder it is to hate them. Maybe that’s the tactic all along.

Without rambling too much, I encourage you all to read Moceanu’s “exit interview”. Her thoughts add an important level of humanity and gravity to the games we all love and know and cheer for. It is easy to be caught up in the glamour and the gallantry of the Games. Even for a hardcore cynic and ex-gymnast like myself, watching the “Fierce Five” blew my mind away with the beauty of the sport and brought a glow to my heart for these girls, who seemed so very tiny and earnest. But when those Russian gymansts cried big fat tears all over television for their silver medal, there must have been a little more than just dissapointment going on.

The Olympics is a shiny, sparkly time in which we all hold hands and play good ole’ sports and feel proud of our nations in a squeaky-clean way (aside from the occasional Chinese doping incident). Our athletes make us proud because they are so single-minded and incessantly loyal in their pursuits. There is no need for brain twisting or overthinking because there are no games. The goal is physical and explicit: all we have to do is sit back, knock down a few beers, and shout for U.S.A. It is important to remember, however, that no pursuit so grand can ever remain unadulterated, and that any lifestyle based on the sole image of perfection is ulitmately unsustainable.

*Edit: I also strongly recommend reading Karolyi’s “autobiography”, Feel No Fear. Still not sure how that man works but it provides the opposite perspective in a colorful way.

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This past Wednesday, in the last of the amazing speaker hackNY guest lecture series, we had the lucky opportunity to listen to team of partners at Union Square Ventures, composed of many of the biggest names in venture capital on the East (and West) coast. As we progressed through the Q&A session, complemented by a spectular, shimmering view of the setting sun over the Manhattan skyline, someone brought up the inivetible (and important) concern of whether this new start-up acropolis of Manhattan would make it. That is, beyond the hype and the parties and the geek-chic hipster glasses, would this bloom-and-burst of web apps amount to any valueable ecosystem?

Someone answered, and I forget who, that it was exactly these little failures, these short-lived spurts, that lead to a strong and stable economy. He compared it to Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy (also an amazing speaker that we got the chance to listen to on Monday, and head of a company that I have had a huge crush on for years now)’s technical dogma of continuous deployment. At Etsy, engineers are required to continuously deploy– in other words, push out new code as quickly as possible– even if that code may not be perfected yet. The code is expected to be flawed and eyes and ears are kept alert to catch and patch up any holes. The argument, which at first appears counter-intuitive, is that this methodology actually leads to a more reliable product, especially for something on the scale of Etsy.

Keep reading…

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