I’ve never been good with good byes.  You could say it’s a Minnesota thing, as our farewells stereotypically extend beyond any normal statute of limitations.  For me, I always seem to be at a crossroads with my emotions, wanting to leave in a smooth, yet sincere way.  Of course, I am very excited to return home, but as the Semisonic tune “Closing Time” reminds us, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

I remember stepping off the plane in Bordeaux the afternoon of January 3rd, scratching my eyes after an overnight flight to Paris, and a delay at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport.  My first day of my study abroad experience did not go well, plagued by fatigue, poor planning, and little guidance.  I’ll be honest in saying I was numb with fear my first night, not knowing how I was going to survive another four and a half months.  And then, things started to change.  Having the time to step away from the life I had led till now allowed me to discover a lot about myself.  Being in a new country provided me with a wealth of new experiences, and I was able to share them with people I’d never met before.

In three days, I’ll be in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, ready to return to everything I left when I came over here.  It will be comforting to be in familiar surroundings, and I know that seeing loved ones again will provoke the same question, “So, how was it?”  It’s a question I’ve thought long and hard about how I’m going to answer, and I’ve decided that no catchphrase or soundbyte could do this experience justice.  This blog post won’t either, but what it will do is give credit where credit is due.  I don’t really know how to say good bye to this place, and all I can do is express my gratitude.  I owe plenty of thanks to the people that helped me have the growing experience that I did.

To my landlady, an aging florist, who frequently leaves at 3 AM to go to the flower market, I have so much respect for the passion you put into your small flower shop.  You set a great example for young people to follow as someone whose ambitions were achieved through hard work.  Though our communication is sometimes limited because of our language preference, no words need to be said for me to know that you care.

To the folks I have met on my adventures throughout Europe, your cameo appearances in this experience have left a lasting impression.  To the runner I met in Porto who smokes 2-3 packs a day, but can still run a sub-3 hour marathon, you’ve taught me that there will always be something scientists can’t quantify: the human spirit.  To the middle-aged man on the bus in Dublin, who until now never had the chance to go to school, thank you for showing me how education can light a fire.  To the fans I met at White Hart Lane, I appreciate you making me feel like part of the family.  To the fans from all over the world at the Barcelona Marathon, even though you didn’t know me, and probably won’t see me again, thanks for showing me that no flag can get in the way of sportsmanship.

To the international students I met, getting to know you all was a true pleasure, and I hope we stay in touch.  The fact that we all came together, despite hailing from all corners of the globe, was a special thing.  Being able to be in a conversation with a student from Australia, Great Britain, and Canada all at once really made the world seem quite small.  You guys have officially infected me with your love of “football,” and I no doubt will be a life-long fan.

To the city of Bordeaux, I can’t thank you enough for providing such a welcoming atmosphere.  You all were so accepting of us as internationals, and were patient when we didn’t know the way.  This place really has a calming effect, a feeling like I’ve never experienced before.  Sure, there aren’t massive monuments or high rises, but I think the charm in this place is something that can’t be seen.

To the French, thank you for showing me such a great appreciation of self and for the value of life.  You have taught me that to truly love others, you must first love yourself.  Yes, your numerous strikes may confound our schedules a bit, but I respect the fact that you are willing to stand up for what you believe.

To those who supported me throughout this experience, thank you for all of your help and advice.  I would not have been able or comfortable doing this without your encouragement, and trust in me.

To those of you who were gracious enough to read this blog, thank you for all of your kind words.  I recognize that I had quite the hiatus in the middle of this experience, and for neglecting this, I do apologize.  At the time, my writing became a lot more introspective and self-directed, and I felt it wasn’t appropriate for this medium.  I thank you for your patience!

Finally, to the experience over here, thank you for happening.  I had reached a point in my life where I was looking for an opportunity to learn about myself, discover new territory, and take some chances.  I planned this experience with the intention of not knowing anyone in advance, or having much of any idea of what was going to happen.  I wanted to step out of my box, and have an adventure.  I certainly did.

Signing off,

Jack

For me, choosing an English Premier League club to support was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made since arriving in Europe this semester.  In hindsight of the lengthy and thorough process I went through to pick a side, I realize I take for granted the luxury of being raised in a state that is large enough to hand you teams in all major American sports leagues.

The problem in France, of course, is that there lacks a passionate following for the big four American leagues.  As a fan of the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL, it didn’t take me long to recognize my sports affections were not shared on the global stage.  Not everyone loves basketball, baseball, football, and hockey.  In fact, as I just learned on a journey to Dublin, the four major sport leagues in Ireland feature Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and soccer.

Wanting to become more in touch with the rest of the world, I decided I had to begin following the world’s most watched sports league.  That was the Barclay’s Premier League, England’s top soccer (football, to most of you 7 billion humans) offering.  The only problem was that no league is fun to watch if you don’t have a horse in the race, and I didn’t have a club to follow.

As an American, I needed a squad that played in a city that could play host to a pan-Atlantic trip when I came for a match.  That eliminated quite a few, because, let’s be honest, a destination vacation to a place like Wigan has the allure of a weekend getaway to Gary, Indiana.

I eventually zoned in on London, a tourist friendly location with an offering of six premier league clubs to choose from.  Now that I had my shortlist, I decided the final cut had to be done in person.  And, not just in person, but in one day.  I often suffer from my own recency bias, and so having a taste of all six clubs in one day would help me make the best decision.  Thus, armed with a notepad, camera, and six NutriGrain bars, I departed my west London hotel for Osterley Underground Station at 7 AM on May 4th with an open mind and a full day ahead.

(Note: British people refer to clubs as though they were using the pronoun “they” ex. Chelsea have a lot of money.  The red underlines drove me up the wall, so American English it is!)

FIRST DESTINATION: Scope out the Boleyn Ground, Home of West Ham United FC

7:30: (Underground) Piccadilly Line from Osterley to Green Park, Jubilee Line from Green Park to West Ham, and District Line from West Ham to Upton Park.  Total Duration: 1 hr 15 min

8:45: I approached the Boleyn Ground thinking I’d arrived at a 5 year old’s birthday party.  With two castle towers forming the façade, the entrance to the stadium looks like it might be one more fit for a moon bounce than premier league soccer.  Nevertheless, time was of the essence, and I quickly asked a couple passing by if they’d snap a picture of me.  To my surprise, neither of them spoke English, but thrusting a camera in their face seemed to communicate my desire.  With that, I hastened back to the underground station.

Image

WEST HAM UNITED FC

PROS: As far as success goes, West Ham stands in the middle of the Premier League Table, a respectable 10th out of 20 clubs.  Up and coming American Sebastian Lletget recently signed a two year deal to play for the senior club.  The 20 year old San Francisco native looks to be a staple in the club’s midfield for seasons to come.

Off the field (or the pitch, for those of you Europeans), the club made headlines when it announced it would be moving to Olympic Stadium starting in 2016.  This is a fantastic move for a club that has lived largely in the shadow of London’s other clubs.

CONS: To an outsider, West Ham supporters seem to border on crazy to potentially insane.  For starters, the song of choice at the Boleyn Ground is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” which would seem to be some kind of ode to the Powerpuff Girls.  If the title isn’t enough to scare you, imagine Russell Brand belting it at the top of his lungs.  The untamed British comedian and talk show host has made his support for the club well known over the years, having been a season ticket holder in the past.  As if the crazy hasn’t already presented itself, the 2005 film Green Street featured the story of West Ham’s hooligan group, the Inter City Firm.  Of course, hooliganism has had its presence in virtually every English club, but bets are they chose this one for a reason.

OVERALL GRADE: C+

SECOND DESTINATION: Tour Stamford Bridge, Home of Chelsea FC

9:00: District Line from Upton Park to West Ham, Jubilee Line from West Ham to Westminster, District Line from Westminster to Fulham Broadway.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 min

9:45: The name of the underground stop might be a bit misleading, as Chelsea actually plays in the Fulham borough, despite the presence of a club bearing the borough’s name about two miles away.  We’ll touch more on that fiasco later.  At this moment, I was jogging into Stamford Bridge for a guided tour.  As you’ll notice, some clubs got a bit more love than others on this journey simply because tours aren’t scheduled at all hours.

Getting to see the changing rooms, media center, and having the opportunity to walk up the players’ tunnel was like being a college recruit on an official visit.  The guide did a great job of marketing the club, and I’ll admit that I left the stadium high on “The Blues”.

021

CHELSEA FC

PROS: Chelsea’s primary color is royal blue, which provides a sharp, distinct look.  The club has also been successful in recent years, winning the UEFA Champion’s League last year, and vying for the Europa League Title in a couple weeks.  They are supported by their ever loyal goalkeeper, Petr Cech, who has kept 142 clean sheets (shutouts to us Yanks) in the Premier League.

CONS: In 2003, Chelsea was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.  Let’s just say if you think Abramovich has earned every penny fair and square, you probably also think M.J. was framed and O.J. was an innocent bystander.  Consider Abramovich London’s version of Mikhail Prokhorov.  The Russian makes constant personnel changes, and continues to pump money into the club to achieve success, though results don’t always back the investment.

OVERALL GRADE: B

THIRD DESTINATION: “Touch” Craven Cottage, Home of Fulham FC

11:00: Make the roughly 2 mile walk down Fulham Road to Fulham Palace Gardens, and follow the Thames northwest to Craven Cottage.  TOTAL DURATION: 20 min

11:20: All I needed to do was touch the cottage with my hands, and the memories of the day prior came fluttering back into my mind.

The night I arrived in London, I had asked the man working the front desk at my hotel for directions to Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC.  We had been talking about my adventure to find a Premier League club to support, and the man had made it known that he was a staunch supporter of Chelsea, Fulham’s arch-rival.  I hadn’t put two and two together at the time, and in hindsight, should really have asked someone else.  However, the directions he gave pointed to a destination on a “Stadium Street” that was near the Thames, and required I disembarked at the Fulham Broadway station.  I knew Craven Cottage was near the Thames, and a Fulham Broadway Station and a Stadium Street sounded right, so I didn’t think to check twice.

A day later, with twenty minutes till my tour at Craven Cottage, I was staring at a warehouse in the Chelsea borough near the docks of a fishing wharf.  Not seeing a single indicator of success, I asked a man passing by where Craven Cottage was.

“Oh, mate,” He said, “You’ve got yourself quite a bit of a stroll ahead of ya.”

This was certainly not the answer I needed to hear.  After sprinting down the road, I finally came across a vacant cab with a driver happy to help me out.  I arrived with a minute to spare, and to my relief, the guide was cool about it.  Nevertheless, a Chelsea fan leading me astray left a rough taste in my mouth.  I would not forget it.

019 

FULHAM FC

PROS: For someone who digs history, Craven Cottage is spouting with it.  The cottage, initially established as a hunting locale for British royals over 300 years ago.  To this day, a large area of green space, Fulham Palace Gardens, sit to the stadium’s north, and fans who actually use the correct underground stop, Putney Bridge, make the roughly one mile walk, known as the Green Mile, through it on match day.  The actual cottage itself is located in the southeast corner of the stadium, and is where the changing rooms, family rooms, and media sheds are located.  I say “sheds” because the area where players give postgame interviews is literally a piece of stationary plastered on the wall beneath the cottage’s deck.

As the cottage was converted to its current state in 1896, there was not a wealth of seating planned for spectators, and the stadium today only holds 25,700.  I’ll be honest, folks.  It’s a cozy 25,700.  I’m about six feet, and my knees would put earmuffs on the unfortunate soul in front of me.  Fulham has talked about plans to extend the stadium into the river, building a stilted shell over the top of the current seats, but plans have yet to come to fruition.

On the field, Fulham gained notoriety for its wave of American players who have come through in recent years, earning the nickname “Fulhamerica”.  However, the name as faded, as the only American left in the club is on the U-18 squad.

CONS: Fulham supporters will tell you than their biggest rival is Chelsea, but I’ll be straight with you.  A Fulham fan saying his squad will oust Chelsea is comparable to Brandon Jennings’ vow to boot the Heat in six.  On the field, Fulham is a mediocre 12th in the Premier League, a result that will need some fixing.  Additionally, while the fan experience can be like a trip to a history museum, fans looking to get a view of the Thames will encounter a statue of Michael Jackson on the stadium’s exterior.  As we’ve discussed, thinking MJ was innocent will put you outside at least a couple standard deviations of the population.  It will, however, put you in company with Fulham owner Mohammed al-Fayed, who befriended the King of Pop, and made the decision to erect the statue.

OVERALL GRADE: A-

FOURTH DESTINATION: Tour Emirates Stadium, Home of Arsenal FC

11:20: Hustle back to Fulham Broadway station, and take the District Line from Fulham Broadway to Earl’s Court, and the Piccadilly Line from Earl’s Court to Holloway Road.  TOTAL DURATION: 1 hr

12:20: As I approached the palatial structure that is Emirates Stadium, there was little left to doubt that this was London’s most widely supported club, and one of the most successful.  Yet, success on the field doesn’t translate to success in the tour office, who had a scheduling conflict on their hands.  The Everton U-15s were playing the Arsenal U-15s, and tours would be abbreviated to seeing the media room and the field only.  They offered past match day programs as a consolation, but a guy headed to see Arsenal’s rival, Tottenham Hotspur, couldn’t show up with one of those.

036

ARSENAL FC

PROS: The name “Arsenal” derives from the large munitions factory in the southeast London district of Woolwich.  The club was originally created in 1886 as a club for the workers there, but had to be moved to north London in 1910, as it was impossible to draw large enough crowds in Woolwich.  Family history shows that my great grandfather worked at the Arsenal during the club’s time in Woolwich, and was a recreational soccer player himself.  In the way of family connections, this club is a plus.

As a proponent of rational behavior, Arsenal deserves credit for giving their field (or pitch) a name that offers some kind of indication that an English Premier League club plays there.  The palatial Emirates Stadium is a concise, straightforward name that gives outsiders a good idea of what goes on inside.  This seems pointless, until I realized that Arsenal was not abiding by the norm – they were an exception.  The rest of London is saturated with stadiums whose names could never be paired with their inhabitants.  I’d expect to find White Hart Lane (Tottenham Hotspur), Stamford Bridge (Chelsea), and Loftus Road (QPR) on street signs, while Boleyn Ground (West Ham) and Craven Cottage (Fulham) sound like landmarks in a Robin Hood adventure.

CONS: Arsenal fans affectionately refer to their squad as the “Gunners”, which doesn’t bode well for a foreigner who comes from a nation where tensions on the second amendment have never been higher.  As irony would have it, reports have surfaced that Osama bin Laden was an avid Gunners supporter in his day.  Of course, the club can’t control who chooses to support them, but the idea of Osama and me being on the same side of anything is chilling.  Add Fidel Castro, Spike Lee, and Ian Poulter to the list, and you’ve got yourself quite a motley crew.

That really is the problem with Arsenal.  Everybody likes them.

OVERALL GRADE: A-

FIFTH DESTINATION: Attend a match at White Hart Lane, Home of Tottenham Hotspur FC

1:30: Piccadilly Line from Holloway Road to Finsbury Park, Victoria Line from Finsbury Park to Seven Sisters, and Shuttle Bus from Seven Sisters to White Hart Lane.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 Min

2:15: There’s something about White Hart Lane that makes you feel like you’ve taken a time machine to 1970.  The stadium has a white exterior with brown panel windows shielding sets of bleached curtains, giving a look you might see in The Brady Bunch.

The exterior might be in need of renovation, but the atmosphere on the inside is unreal.  When 23 year old Welsh sensation Gareth Bale netted the tie breaking goal late in the match, the crowd eruption was off the charts.  I was hugged by multiple strangers, and somehow ended up sitting back down three seats from where I stood up.  Yet, when the refs whistle blew, I hustled to a cab.  One club still remained.

045

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR FC

PROS: The “Spurs” have a core of young studs, including Bale and keeper Hugo Lloris, a 26 year old from France, who plays his position for their national team.  Manager Andre Villas-Boas, at 35, is young for a manager and is known for taking a laissez-faire approach, preferring to instill confidence in his team.  This is certainly a team that will have a future.

CONS: Saying you’re a Spurs fan in America is synonymous with supporting a soon-to-be bombed out NBA franchise currently squeezing every ounce of success from good decisions made at the turn of the century.  Saying you’re a Spurs fan in London means you can’t stand Arsenal, which, given family ties, is not in the cards for me.

OVERALL GRADE: B+

SIXTH DESTINATION: Lurk outside a match at Loftus Road, Home of Queen’s Park Rangers FC

5:30: Taxi cab across town to Loftus Road, where the Queen’s Park Rangers are in the middle of a match with Arsenal.  TOTAL DURATION: 45 minutes

6:15: Lurking outside a QPR match is like lurking outside a morgue.  It’s dead as a doornail, and almost sinful to want to see what’s inside.  Queen’s Park Rangers will be relegated after this season, and the atmosphere, or lack thereof, outside Loftus Road could not have made that more evident.

054

QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS FC

PROS: Few and far between.  Though small, I guess the stadium looked relatively nice.

CONS: For starters, it’s a bit difficult to pick a Premier League club to support that won’t even be in the Premier League next year.  You can’t even blame the results on lack of financial resources.  QPR’s wage bill ranks in the top seven in the Premier League, and yet, they will finish in the bottom three.  As a finance major, this spending inefficiency is simply inexcusable.

OVERALL GRADE: D-

THE WINNER: Fulham FC

FC-Fulham-Logo

I was incredibly torn between Arsenal and Fulham, but in the end, the lack of support for Fulham inspired a softie like me.  It’s a shame the positives of each club could be merged into one.  It almost happened, back in 1910 when Woolwich Arsenal was looking for a moving spot.  Chairman Sir Henry Norris owned both clubs, and sought to make them into one, but was rejected.  He then tried to arrange a stadium sharing agreement at Craven Cottage, but the proposal was also rejected, forcing the club to move to north London.

No, it won’t be pleasant to see Michael Jackson at matches, but I’ll choose to remember the musical genius of the 70s and 80s, and not the troubled man who showed up to court looking like Captain Hook, talking about problems in Neverland.

Yes, the family ties are with Arsenal, and they will always receive silent support.  However, being misdirected by a fan from across the Fulham borough is a more personal matter.  I know supporting a club currently in a bit of a tailspin might seem self deprecating, but I’m in it for the long haul.   It’s on, Chelsea.

009 010011 015 016 022

009 011 017 020 046 048 050 059 066 075 082 085 089 090 093 094

Olá!

 

It’s a typical greeting in Portuguese, but not even knowing a simple “hello” was in my vocabulary when our RyanAir jet hit the tarmac in the coastal town of Porto.  While I was relieved to find that most of the signage in Portugal is done in both Portuguese and English, it didn’t change the fact that I was embracing a new culture all by myself.  In fact, it was on the metro into town that I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was the only person I knew in the country I was in.  Sure, it’s a little intimidating, but that’s what this two day adventure was about: taking charge.

In society today, we seem to have this fixation with acceptable levels of confidence.  I can include myself in the masses of folks who are rubbed the wrong way by what we perceive to be arrogant behavior.  I’m not going to sit here and point fingers, largely because I think we all know of someone who is, shall we say, the president of their fan club.

Yet, in being preoccupied with discounting condescending acts, I think that at times I have lacked enough confidence in fear of being seen in the same patronizing manner.  For me, I had to recognize that there is a flip side to the coin.

There’s a saying that the difference between being good and being great is a matter of confidence.  While this is something difficult to quantify, I can offer a credible example.  For those of you who don’t make your own bracket and glue yourself to the T.V. in March, you’ll have to be imaginative.

One of the leaders who I admire in college basketball is Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens, a man known for his calm demeanor on the sidelines.  He doesn’t yell or scream, or engage in altercations with officials.  Rather, he believes that his approach to the game will be reflected in his play of his team.  Consequently, he remains poised, and instills confidence in his players during games, rather than tear them down.  Since assuming the reins of the program in ’07, the small liberal arts school from Indianapolis has produced a record of 139-40, and made two Cinderella runs to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011.  It comes as no surprise that Stevens has his Bulldogs poised to make another push to play April basketball again this season.

Now, I must acknowledge that Stevens has the benefit of recruiting the right type of player to be successful in his system.  Often, he goes after guys who have an unselfish, team mentality, rather than the best talent available.  Consequently, it’s impractical for every manager or leader to take this approach, but it still begs an important question.  If Coach Stevens can get average hoopsters to play with the best in the nation by getting them to believe in what they can do, doesn’t that make confidence not only important, but essential for success?

I think we can all answer that one.  Yes, confidence is a necessity to achieving almost anything in life.  Yet, why do we seem so turned off by folks who project it so dynamically? 

This is a question that has been on my mind for awhile now.  However, after forcing myself out on my own this week in Portugal, I think I have an answer.  Nothing is ever the be-all and tell-all, so take it for what it’s worth.

As a human being in a competitive society, you have to be confident.  You have to believe in yourself, and even at time compete with yourself.  Always strive to be the best YOU can be.  However, it’s also important to be happy for others – to respect them for their accomplishments, and instill confidence in them when they need it.  See, I think where the problem with arrogance comes in is when people start to belittle others to place themselves on a higher shelf.  

For me, it comes down to this.  It’s a mentality that states, “I’m good, and you’re good, but neither of us is too good.”  

I recently re-visited a poem that I think captures this type of lifestyle.  It was something my trumpet teacher had placed in the front of my lesson book to put me in the right state of mind while practicing.  It goes like this:

“Promise Yourself

To be so strong that nothing
can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness, and prosperity
to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel
that there is something in them
To look at the sunny side of everything
and make your optimism come true.

To think only the best, to work only for the best,
and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others
as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past
and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times
and give every living creature you meet a smile.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself
that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear,
and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world,
not in loud words but great deeds.
To live in faith that the whole world is on your side
so long as you are true to the best that is in you.”   

Yes, it reaches a bit beyond the scope of this discussion, but I think the point is made.

These were the thoughts motivating me during the two days in Portugal.  I didn’t want any lack of drive keeping me from experiencing all that Porto had to offer, whether that be conversing with a local, seeing an attraction, or doing anything I thought might be uncomfortable.

I won’t ever know if I did everything I possibly could have, but I think I got close.  I did two running tours (one each day) to see the city and Atlantic coast, each about 1.5 hours in length.  My tour guide was a local professor who started the agency to share the city he grew up in through his love for running.  It couldn’t have been better.  No other way to see Porto allows you to see so much in such a short amount of time, chat with someone who knows their way around, and put in a great workout.

I also had the opportunity to experience some Portuguese cuisine.  Seafood, pastries, and wine are what this region is known for, and though I can’t speak to the wine, I can say that weaving through the different wine establishments on the running tour was a unique experience in and of itself.  Porto is located at the mouth of the Douro River, and the southern bank is saturated with different wine cellars, museums, etc.

As for the seafood and pastries, my cooked hake (similar to cod) and pão-de-ló (sponge cake) left me wanting to write a testimonial for the restaurant.  They were simply spectacular.

Seeing as that I’ve created a novel out of this post, I’ll fill in the rest of the gaps in the vacation with some pictures if I can.  Due to technological constraints, they may be in a separate post, so stay tuned!

 

Later,

 

Jack 

It’s a question I get quite often.
“Why do you run so much, man? Gonna wreck your knees.”
“Dude, I always see you out running. Why do you do it?”
Or, my personal favorite: “You crazy?”

To be honest, I’ve never really had an answer that I can put in to words. Sure, the feeling I get when I run is quite surreal, but it’s not something that can be left at that. It’s something I lot more that that – something that makes me shelf all the fears of joint damage to lace up for another adventure.

I suppose I should start by talking about how I got started. Anyone who knows me well could tell you I love to play ultimate frisbee. Some of my fondest memories of high school were at the park, just tossing the disc around, or playing pick-up games over the summer. I became so in love with ultimate that I elected to forgo my senior golf season to play on our high school’s club team. However, the transition to an organized team was a bit more difficult than I had envisioned. Like basketball, we ran plays, both offensively and defensively. Suddenly, I was a role player in a system, and swaying more towards the logical and analytical side of life, I was constantly preoccupied with being in the right place at all times. While it’s important to run the cookie cutter plays effectively, I seemed to forget I was playing a game of Frisbee. Instead of operating instinctively, helping the disc handler when he was pressured, finding open space to advance the disk, or covering deep threats when they bolted, I was pre-occupied with being “where I was supposed to be.” This significantly hindered my playing, to the point where I looked very timid out on the field. Consequently, I received little playing time for the first part of the season, as I should have.

After one of the games, I was so upset with myself that I hadn’t displayed my ability to play, something that had come so naturally in pick-up games, that upon returning home I set out for a run. I didn’t know where I was going, and to be honest, that was the least of my worries. I knew that I didn’t want to take my frustrations out on anyone else, so I thought if I exhausted myself on a run, I’d have no energy left to be angry. As many do when they aren’t thinking rationally, I got a bit further from home than was necessary, and I felt myself pushing my legs to get back. It was at this point that I discovered flow.

The concept of flow was proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and describes “a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” It is in flow where one is so focused on what they are doing that all external distractions, and even consciousness of self, are blocked out. It is when people are in flow, Csikszentmihalyi argues, that they are at their happiest states.

For me, flow occurs most frequently when I run, which is why I do it. It is a feeling of total absorption, as though everything is controlled. In fact, there are times when I am in such a flow state that I forget that I am running, and seem to float across the landscape. Now, this may seem a bit odd to folks who don’t run, so let me first say that flow does not come right away. Because it is a total involvement of mind and body, it requires a honing of a skill to reach this point. From this respect, flow is complex in that it mandates a deep investment from a person. Yet, it certainly isn’t limited to running. Flow is something felt by musicians, dancers, athletes, singers, and many more. When a violinist is deep in a musical passage, often he or she is so absorbed in the music that an external distraction, like a person blowing their nose, or even an internal distraction, like a difficult key change, will go totally unnoticed as the notes spring off the bow. In basketball, flow is often referred to as “having the hot hand.” Now, scientific research has proven that making one basket does not increase your chances of making the next. However, it fails to distinguish players who were simply open and took a few shots in a row from players who were totally embraced in the moment.

The point is, optimal performance is achieved when a person’s mind and body are in the flow state, because it is here where he or she has focused total energy on the task at hand, and have omitted all fears, worries, precautions, or distractions from their mind.

Thus is the reason why I run. I can compose this answer in words today as I am presently reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book on the topic. Now, a cynic may think that I have molded the thesis of the book to fit my passion for running. It was quite the opposite. In fact, I began reading the book upon recommendation from a band director (as yes, music offers an infinite number of flow opportunities), and after reading the first few chapters began to realize that this concept directly related to how I feel out on the trails.

While it can be difficult to see recognize what flow looks like, I have done my best to dig up a few YouTube clips of what I think of flow to be. Pick your poison, depending on your interest!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIANMqJX0ig (NBA star Kyrie Irving … excuse the excessive accolades from the announcers)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4JD-3-UAzM (Piano solo)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZw6A4KsTR8 (Interpretive dance … mute the speakers for the first 5 seconds. Your ears will thank you.)

That’s all for now.

Cheers,

Jack

Each Independence Day, those of us who have the nerve to lose our appetites prior to a festive dinner will tune in to ESPN to watch the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, taped on Coney Island in New York City.  The event features the world’s finest (if that word can even be used to describe these folks) competitive eaters, whereby contestants are given 10 minutes to pound down as many franks as possible, bun included.  Last year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut continued his streak of victories, sending 68 of those bad boys through his digestive system.

As a kid, I loved hot dogs, and still do from time to time.  Roll one up in a croissant, throw some mustard on top, and I’ve got a satisfying lunch.  Yet, what makes this meal known as “pigs in a blanket” so satisfying is the time it takes to enjoy it.  Telling me I had to finish one in 30 seconds would not sound the least bit pleasing.  Here in lies a microcosm for daily living.  The once calm world is moving too fast for enjoyment, and we as humans are finding that even the things we love are being rushed in what we can call the hot dog eating contest of life.

Growing up, I loved being assigned research projects in school.  Both the prospect of learning about something that interested me, as well as the opportunity to be creative in making a presentation of my new found knowledge excited and motivated me.  I remember doing reports on Italy, manatees, Babe Ruth, French Polynesia, Madagascar, Robert Fulton, and Washington D.C., to name a few.

However, in recent years, the assigning of a large project has left me with a dreadful outlook.  It isn’t that I’m not excited about the topic, nor is it some new-found stage fright in presenting that makes me apprehensive.  It’s the fact that I know I’m not giving my topic the time it deserves.  With time consumers like marching band, a job, other classes, student organizations, or something else, the time allocated for a project in an already accelerated class is not enough to me.

As a student aiming to succeed, I am forced to do what I believe the rest of my peers do.  I take almost every possible short cut, or look for a way to abbreviate anything that may take up too much time.  To answer your doubts, yeah, I get projects done.  Yet, my research is often rushed, and the presentation not fine-tuned to where I’d like.

Yes, working force folks, I understand.  The world isn’t going to slow down for me.  No, my future boss won’t ever say, “Why don’t we move that presentation to next week since you’re having such a great time working on it?”  However, I am saying I think that the fact that we are forced to abbreviate the things we love is a shame.

I used to love to read.  Check out my bookshelf in my bedroom, and it will be very evident.  In fact, I’ve had to box up books and move them to the basement because I’ve had so many.  In recent years, the mere assignment to read a book has usually made me tense up, knowing that the analysis required to understand something like Romeo and Juliet means a most dedicated time commitment.  I’d be lying to you if I said I’ve never skimmed a book, or used Spark Notes to get by when the minutes were too few.  In fact, only now, with a little more time to spare in Bordeaux, have I been able to rediscover my love for reading.  Yet, the late nights spent panicking over whether to finish a book or get a good night’s rest remain fresh in my mind.

What I’d have learned if I’d tuned into Romeo and Juliet a bit more is one of the themes of the story – that the passage of time is greater than man.  The world’s information is doubling about every two years, but the time to process and use it will not change.  Our 24-hour days will stay the same.  Thus, it creates this need as a society to abbreviate and short cut.  And, as technology continues to improve, we will have more and more ways of getting to information faster, even information about our very selves.

As humans, we desire to know each other faster. It’s like we don’t have time to get to know each person because there are hundreds, even thousands, of others out there who we can get to know through friends, work, school, etc. Because our world is so connected, we live in a time of Facebook profiles, 30 second elevator discussions, and 30 minute interviews that can determine your life profession. I mean, shoot, the Carlson School of Management has meet & greet socials so you can get to know folks in the work force. Essentially, to accommodate this, we have to have an image. We have to have things to describe us when we meet people, pages to “like” on Facebook to show others what we’re in to, things to reference in interviews to give employers a sense of who we are. And, what are these things? They are ways for us to be abbreviated– sports teams, political parties, schools, citizenships … the list goes on and on.  In other words, we have a Spark Notes edition on ourselves that allows us to be summed up in a quick way to save the time it would take to actually get to know us.

I want to be clear about something. I certainly feel as though people are defined by their actions over time. The key, however, is time — something we aren’t afforded in small talk, at a meet and greet event, or when someone views or Facebook page or Twitter profile.

To cut to the chase, I feel like we are abbreviating our world.  Truly appreciating the world’s many gifts require time to soak them in.  Yet, the velocity at which society moves makes this impossible, often shortening our levels of patience to do this.  How many of us turn on our favorite song, only to switch it or do something else about 30 seconds in?  How about reading the headline of a story, the first few lines, and then exiting out or folding up the newspaper because we “get the picture?”

Yes, folks.  We are shoving too many hot dogs down at too fast of a rate to enjoy them.  That has been the case for me this past week, and the primary reason I have not been blogging.  If I haven’t mentioned already, my school’s academic year is structured in 3 week sequences, whereby each student takes the equivalent of one semester long course in each 3 week span.  However, the requirement for each course is 45 in class hours, which can be scheduled at any point by the professor.  As luck would have it, my finance professor got the novel idea to schedule all 45 hours in the first week and a half, forcing down a semester’s worth of finance in grueling 6 hour sessions, and topping it off by assigning a 30-40 page paper and a half hour presentation to go with it.  If you think this blog is long (which it is – partially a test … I’m hoping you see the point!), a 35-pager is quite the undertaking.  Yes, a project with a fast approaching deadline will never escape me, not even across an ocean.

Folks, I’m not advocating for the world to stop turning.  No, I think the advancement of our society is crucial for us to develop as a people.  But, we are people who need to be happy.  Sometimes we have to stop and smell the roses, especially when it involves the people and things we love.  So, instead of inhaling that hot dog, grab some chips and a drink, and pull out the yard blankets.  For once, have a picnic.

Until next time,

Jack