Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Breathing Hard

Casper, WY again

So my detour through Colorado has come to an end, and I'm back in Casper.  My motorcycle is currently in the shop getting an oil change that might take until the end of the day, so I'm going to be good friends with the employees at the Starbucks down the street by the end of the day.

After I left Denver Sunday morning, I headed into the mountains.  It was raining on and off, but when it wasn't, blue skies and sunshine made the day pretty nice and kept it from getting too cold (even if I did have to wear my rainsuit most of the time I was riding).  I rode highway 34 through Rocky Mountain National Park  which goes through the mountains and Estes Park.  At one point I stopped at a parking lot with an overlook to take some pictures, and I was at an elevation of around 12,000 ft above sea level.
Sidenote: I'm really not a fan of the national parks at the moment.  I mean, I like having the parks there and going to them and all that - that's great.  But when all I want to do is take a road through a park and there's a $10 toll for me to do that, it's kind of ridiculous.  Google maps doesn't mark those roads as toll roads, so I don't find out until I get there that it costs money to use that road, and by that point it's really not worth turning around and going back to a different route (when that one could cost money as well).  I understand a few dollars.  I understand needing to make money to keep these things around.  But $10 just to use the road?

This was before I got snowed on - just leftover snow from last time.
As I was wandering around the area, I turned around and noticed a big hill behind me, and decided to hike up it.  Just because, you know, it's there and I could.  It was not an easy hike, despite the fact that it wasn't all that steep until the end.  The lack of oxygen had been getting to me for a while up there - when I was in the parking lot before hiking around, I actually had to stop and sit down because I got light-headed just from the effort of taking off my rain gear.

So it was slow-going.  I would hike for a minute or two, then stop for 20 seconds and take a few deep breaths and let my heart rate get back down to something normal, then start moving again.  It was extremely hard work, especially compared to all the more difficult hikes I'd been doing in the Badlands and Black Hills a few days before.

But I enjoyed it just as much - and I noticed, while I was doing it, that I actually enjoyed it more because it was such hard work.  More specifically, because it seemed to me at the time like I could feel my body adjusting to the altitude.  Not that I was doing much better by the end of the hike than the beginning, but I could feel that I was pushing my body in a way that would result in big gains from not much time investment.  Like if I did this an hour a day for two weeks, my lungs would have made a huge increase in their ability to handle lower oxygen levels.

It was similar to the feeling I get when I work out after a long time of not working out.  It reminded me of the first time I ran cross country in high school - sophomore year, in the fall, I came to practice for the first time and ran 5 miles, having not run more than 1 or 2 at a time for a few years.  My muscles burned, I could hardly stand up, and putting too much weight on one leg caused it to shake, uncertain if it could handle it - but two weeks later, I was running 5 miles without too much trouble.

The day I did 75 up-downs at wrestling practice as punishment for having mooned other cars on the way back from a wrestling tournament.  My sister asked me what an up-down was later that night, and I tried to show her, and hit my nose on the ground because my arms refused to support my own weight anymore.  But two weeks later I was doing moves on guys in the weight class above me that I couldn't do on guys in my own weight class before.

I love that feeling of the first gains - the start of something new, where in a short period of time you get huge gains.  An economist would probably call that "big marginal gains" - putting in one more unit of effort will get you more units of improvement than at any other point.  It makes me think of a graph like this:

Early on, the slope is steep - going just a little bit to the right gives you a big increase, but as  you go farther on, the gains get slower and slower.  As you get more experienced at something, it takes more effort to make even small gains.  But in that first bit, when you've just started something, the gains come pretty easily.  There's a lot of low-hanging fruit to grab, and big gains come without much effort.

That's one of the main reasons I skip from hobby to hobby, or instrument to instrument, or why I enjoy picking new things up.  It feels good to get that big gain right at the beginning.  Learning Wonderwall on guitar is awesome and doesn't take much work, and then you can show off to your friends.  But learning how to solo isn't that much more impressive to friends, and takes tons more effort.  Learning enough about building guitar effects pedals to do a few mods of your own feels awesome, but designing something from scratch that sounds good takes far more effort and doesn't give you much more reward than just taking someone else's design and tweaking it.

So I end up being in the middle on most of the things I pursue.  I'm better than most people at guitar, but not better than most guitar players.  I'm better at most people at frisbee, but not better than most frisbee players.  I'm better than most people at doing electronics projects, but not better than most people who do them regularly.  I put in that initial effort to make those big gains, and then when the gains slow down, I get bored and go do something else where I can make big gains again.

I'm not even sure if this is a fault or not - if it's something I should fix, or something I shouldn't worry about.  There are things which are worth putting in that effort for - but is it worth it for hobbies?  If I'm only doing it for enjoyment, why shouldn't I stop when the enjoyment gets to a point where I would enjoy something else more?

It would be different with more time.  I read once, in an article about extending the human lifespan (and responses to arguments against it), that if we lived forever, instead of saying "You should go hang-gliding today, because you don't know if you'll be able to tomorrow," people would say things like "You've got to learn linear algebra eventually - why not start now?"  Maybe if life weren't a finite thing with so many different things that I wanted to try, it could be considered a fault to leave one thing so early and move on to something else.

But for now, life is what it is.  There are too many things I want to do for me to justify spending my time on one thing for so long - why not move to where the biggest gains are, where the biggest fun is?  And if it turns out that in my lifetime we learn how to stop aging and disease, and I do end up having to do it eventually, well, I'll have a good start on a lot of different things.

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