On the last Friday of April, a stubby little rocket made with a 2-liter seltzer water bottle, some foam core board, a hot glue gun, a red folder, and fifty jangling pennies was launched into the sky over Briggs Field and miraculously stayed airborne for over 6 seconds. Unfortunately, I was crouched on the grass for the majority of the 6 seconds (I was the one pulling the launch string) so I didn’t get to see it happen in real time, but if my team mates are to be believed, the rocket went up straight like a needle and gently kissed the blue-white smear of springtime sky before hurtling back down to earth.
Our beautiful bottle rocket post-launch
The assignment was part of my Friday GEL lab. GEL stands for the Gordon Engineering Leadership program, and it is a series of classes that a student can choose to take that helps build a variety of attitudes and skills that hopefully can help us better understand and practice engineering leadership. This particular lab was a book-end lab to one that we had at the beginning of the year and it more directly related to honing our team work and resourcefulness skills.
(Since this post isn’t specifically about the GEL program, I found this old blog post with one person’s perspective on it that might be of use to anyone curious to learn more: https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/preparing_for_the_real_world)
With only 60 minutes to build the rocket from scratch, my team of four (myself included), speed walked from Stata to Burton-Conner where we spent the next 40 minutes or so cutting, gluing, and duct-tapping this little-rocket-that-could into existence. Although I’m sure that there are a lot of people out there who have built bottle rockets before or participated in a similar activity, no one on my team knew how to build a bottle rocket. We relied heavily on some pdfs and images that we found when we Googled “bottle rocket design”, the advice of someone who just happened to be hanging out in the lounge where we were working, and our intuitions (which, admittedly, consisted more of random thoughts and assumptions, than accurate statements about rockets or aerodynamics).
That afternoon, as I sat criss-cross applesauce on the field, waiting for our rocket to be launched into the infinite expanse (and by infinite, I mean probably like 70 feet, if I had to use my eyeballs to guesstimate how high the rockets were actually going), I felt like a kid again. There was an air of childlike wonderment in the novelty of it all, which wasn’t entirely surprising seeing as bottle rockets can be introduced to children as early as elementary school. With the novelty came the excitement of unanswered questions. Had we built our rocket correctly? Did we cut the tail fins in the appropriate shape (triangles)? Was the cone glued on asymmetrically? How far would it fly, or would our hopes and dreams be dashed by a failure to launch?
Before we launched, despite all of the excitement, there was also a small part of me that was busy pointing out everything that was wrong with what we had accomplished: the fins looked a little small, the cone was definitely crooked, and the pennies weren’t taped in as securely as we might have originally wanted etcetera etcetera. It was our first time though, so yes, the rocket was far from perfect. In retrospect, from a completely objective perspective, it was probably a pretty shoddy bottle rocket in the grand scheme of all existing and future bottle rockets.
But you know what? More often than not, less than perfect can more than good enough. There will always be something that you can improve, but as long as you don’t let it bring you down, things can turn out pretty darn good anyway. Our rocket ended up being airborne for the longest period of time for the 3-5pm lab section. For rookie rocket builders, that was a whole heaping heck of a lot more than just good enough. We tried our best and had fun in the process. Sounds like a pretty perfect afternoon to me.
On the last Friday of April, after the inaugural launch of the little-rocket-that-could, I had my very first go at a New York Times crossword puzzle in the terminal of the La Guardia airport. Tara ‘17, Cathy ‘17 and I were awaiting our plane which would take us to Pittsburgh later that night. The two of them had already filled in quite a few of those pristine white squares when I joined in, but we spent the rest of the evening, part of the plane ride, and a portion of Saturday afternoon trying to get the rest of the boxes to fit.
There is a peculiar flavor of delight that one experiences when an epiphany is had or a clue is satisfactorily answered. Perhaps one of our favorites was the five letter word for “work digitally?” I wasn’t the one who figured it out, but the very cleverness of the answer “knead” was enough to give me vicarious gratification.
It turns out that despite our enthusiasm, we were too inexperienced to solve the Friday crossword puzzle (with puzzles increasing in difficulty with Monday being the easiest). Curiosity got the best of us so we turned to Google and our searches revealed that not only were we lacking in trivia knowledge, but that we had also misinterpreted some of the clues and filled in some incorrect letters. Thank goodness for pencil.
Here though, there were no niggling perceptions of pessimism. No, these imperfections simply bred curiosity and an urgency to try again and again. There was a craving for the unknown and for the chance to root around the depths of our memories for whatever odd fact or synonym might have stuck around. Like any puzzle might, these crosswords presented an activity that was fun and difficult, but not entirely insurmountable, especially if given time and practice.
I finished my very first crossword puzzle with Tara in its entirety the following Monday and it was ridiculously satisfying. Ok yes, it was a Monday puzzle and one of the clues was “MIT’s business school” (answer: Sloan), but still! Progress! Huzzah, bring out the party hats!
Since then I’ve gotten stuck on three more Wednesday puzzles, but these less than perfect attempts just mean that I’ve found something new and challenging and that in itself is worth celebrating. So here’s to new hobbies and a more intellectually stimulating way to procrastinate when I don’t really feel like doing psets or studying.
On the first Sunday of May, I took part in my very first half-marathon. What that means specifically is that I decided to pay money to run 13.1 miles up and down the picturesque slopes and bridges of the city of Pittsburgh at 7am on a Sunday while trying desperately not to cramp or throw up in a bush on the side of the road. In return, I received a medal, a space blanket, a free cheesy bagel, and really, really sore thigh muscles. Katherine ’17 ran the half-marathon with me, but Tara and Cathy opted for two times the suffering (buy one get one free!) and ran the full marathon.
I had been training since the beginning of March, running five out of seven days, usually indoors at the Z center since the air was still bitingly cold outside. There came to be a rhythm of sorts to my schedule and there was excitement in the repetition and routine of it all.
And then life happened. I got crushed by a particularly awful week with a nasty exam and my perfect schedule was thrown off axis. I stopped running for five days because for a while, it was so much easier to just sit at my desk or lie down in bed than it was to get my butt to the gym. Even when I got back on track, it was only about a week before my schedule was derailed again, this time by my sister’s wedding which involved a jam-packed weekend in California, a lot of rain, and no access to a treadmill. At this point, I was about halfway through with my training schedule and the half-marathon was only a few weeks out. I knew that this was the home stretch, the final push, and my last chance to prepare myself for the actual race.
Spoiler alert: I ran four miles total in the four weeks leading up to the event.
Then came race day, and I thought to myself, maybe I can do this at a 9 minute per mile pace. Maybe that will be a great idea. Even though you’ve never been able to run at that pace for greater than seven miles in training, so you can for sure do it now on race day. THAT DEFINITELY DOESN’T SOUND LIKE A RECIPE FOR DISASTER. I’M TOTALLY DOING THAT. So the race started and I felt on top of the world for the first five miles. There I was, chugging along, following a pacer named Tom and keeping on track towards achieving my goals. But then came mile six. And mile seven. And all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of nausea and a growing fatigue in my legs. YOU CAN DO IT, I screamed to myself (in my head, not out loud. That would have been weird). YOU FEEL NO PAIN. NOPE. NO PAIN AT ALL.
Turns out, I’m a terrible liar.
Around the end of mile seven, I watched with a heavy heart as Tom the pacer drifted away from my line of sight and I felt myself slowing to a walk. It felt terrible at the time. The stopping I mean. I know that there is nothing wrong with walking if you need it and that everyone runs/walks at their own pace, but I had intended to run the whole thing. The disappointment was almost as unbearable as the physical pain. I was being hard on myself, sure, but I couldn’t help the feelings of regret as I hobbled onwards, walking and jogging in spurts and throwing imaginary confetti into the air at my own personal pity party. LOOK AT THAT GUY IN AN INFLATABLE SUMO WRESTLER SUIT! HE’S PASSING YOU. (*CRYING A RIVER OF TEARS*) OMG THAT ELDERLY WOMAN WHO’S RUNNING FASTER THAN YOU DOESN’T EVEN LOOK LIKE SHE’S BREAKING A SWEAT.
The next five miles passed in a blur and even though I wanted nothing more than to stop, I pushed onwards despite my first disappointment, earnest in my resolve to at the very least finish what I had started. The last mile was all downhill and with the generous assistance of gravity, I started running again, putting one leg in front of the other and watching the finish line draw closer and closer.
To be honest, I didn’t feel much when I crossed the finish line. No relief. No excitement. No fist pumping exaltations. The state of my existence seemed to be exactly the same one step before and one step after the arbitrarily drawn boundary of the finish line and it took me a few meters to stop the almost automatic motion of my legs. I think maybe it was because I was too tired to feel much, my mind a bit numb from two plus hours of running. Then somehow, there I was, standing in a sea of my fellow half-marathon finishers, people young and old and of varying degrees of tired or not, walking forward at a welcomingly slow pace, waiting to receive medals, space blankets, bananas etcetera etcetera.
Later, as I was lying on the grass waiting for the cramps in my foot, abs, and back to subside, I thought about the delicious cheesy bagel that I had just devoured and also about the soul-crushing disappointment that I had just experienced. My internal dialogue has a proclivity for the dramatic.
At first, it was so easy to fixate on everything that had gone wrong: I hadn’t followed through with my training schedule, I had pushed myself too hard at the start of the race, I had given up too early, etcetera etcetera. Why hadn’t I been strong enough to keep on keeping on?
A few hours after the race, I was walking up and down staircases no problem and my body felt only vaguely inconvenienced by fatigue. I had expected something worse, or at the very least, some degree of physical discomfort commensurate with the amount of effort and exertion that I had wanted to put into the half-marathon. I took this lack of pain to mean that I hadn’t tried hard enough and because of this, I was wracked with a feeling of self-guilt. These feelings were brushed aside momentarily though as two hours after we finished the half-marathon, Katherine and I waited a few hundred meters from the finish line to cheer on Tara and Cathy as they finished out their race. Hugs and smiles and more cramping ensued and soon we were all loaded up into the car and on the way back home.
It was then that I really looked at my phone for the first time and went through some of the messages that I had received from friends and family. Being from the amazingly supportive group of people that they are, congratulations abounded and they all asked the same question: “How did it go??”
Me: I finished.
That was all I thought I had the right to say, but as I typed the words out on my phone, it really hit me: I had finished. I, queen of couch potatoes and lover of all things inertial, had finished a half-marathon and, despite all of those pesky pessimistic ponderings, that meant something. A year ago, running a 10K (6.2 miles) had seemed an unattainable goal and the semester before that, I was wheezing and coughing up my lungs after a measly 1.5 mile tennis preseason run. I was proud of how far I had come over the years.
Sure it was a messy, ugly sort of run that was far from the perfect one I had entertained in my head. And yes, I had made mistakes and there were things that I really should have done better; I’m not denying that. I just realized that having these regrets and realizations didn’t mean that I also couldn’t appreciate all of the things that had gone right and were good: I ran a non-trivial distance that was farther than I had ever run before in my life, I had an amazing weekend with friends away from the stresses of MIT, and I learned things about the way that I work and fall and get back up again.
When I got back to MIT, I wanted to not only embrace all of the good but also remember the bad and the imperfections. Not by dwelling on them or letting them drag me down, but by reflecting on them and turning these imperfections into motivations. Sometimes less than perfect can simply be the first of many small, stumbling steps towards something even greater than you might have originally imagined.
That same night when I should have been sleeping and recovering from the exhausting weekend, I turned on my laptop and into my search bar, I typed “MARATHONS 2016”.
This blog post, too, is an exercise in letting go of the idea that being less than perfect is an inherently flawed state. I have spent too many hours (going on a whole week now) writing and not writing and rewriting and sometimes just staring at the shapes of the letters on this page, trying to will the sentences into existence, and forgoing sleep at times in a stubborn stand-off pitting my writer’s block against my sleep deprivation.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a case of writer’s block so severe before. Here is the product of about an hour’s worth of said writer’s block from this past Saturday:
The lovely haiku and 80% of the words on this page were written by Dora ’18. The tiny tennis players were courtesy of Rena ’18. I contributed greatly by drawing a bear, a tiny bee in the upper right corner, and also the comma (or is it an apostrophe??) in the top left corner.
For the sake of my growing sleep deficit, I have to move on and accept that this post will never be perfect. Nothing really ever can be. I could spend forever tinkering with wording and grammar and a thousand other things but there will inevitably be errors or misspoken thoughts or discontinuities in flow. These are things that I am learning to accept and to use as inspiration for improvement rather than munition for the critical part of my mind. As long as I know that I’ve put in the best that I possibly can today in whatever circumstances I find myself in, then I can rest easy tomorrow knowing that, despite any shortcomings or criticisms that I or anyone else might point out, that’s as close to perfect as I can possibly get and that is good enough for me.