Tuesday, September 13, 2011

100th post: MLK, pushups, and a push for breadth and height

Milestones, and the promises of social recognition inherent in their celebration, have been the fuel of my livelihood for the past 22 years. The possession is not conscious; I am a naturally competitive person, and, aided by my parents' exhortations to settle for nothing but the best, or perhaps an inability to believe that my life, as it stands, is the best of all possible worlds – à la Candide – I all too readily will yoke myself to short-lived, fiery quests.

This post is my 100th. While that’s an accomplishment, by all objective standards, Peter Writes is diminutive. My page views average 130 per day; if the sun of the blogosphere universe is the Huffington Post, I am somewhere by Neptune, floating among its shallow moons. In a personally Pareto efficient activity market, I should be spending my days consulting, eating exotic fruit, or picking up women on the street, not writing a blog that, most likely, has 20 consistent readers. But to write is to engage in mental calisthenics with passion at my side; better, for me, to be a failed novelist than a blandly successful CEO. The particularly Sisyphean struggle of writing every single day has granted me patience and resilience, and it’s deepened my appreciation for small, kind acts. I’m talking specifically, of course, about the friendly emails and comments that have pushed me onwards in this (ig?)noble struggle. They mean a mighty lot. So, thank you.

Hitting the big one-double-zero provides me a convenient excuse to re-pivot this blog, and my life. This is a two-part series, with part two coming tomorrow. For today, let’s start by revisiting the last challenge I took: the quest for 10,000 pushups.


My first love affair was with numbers. Not Russell Bertrand's Principia Mathematica; think more of a Sesame Street sensibility: counting, categorizing, and quantifying. At Yale, I kept track of it all. In the 69 million seconds I spent at our peerless institution, I took 36 midterms, 20 finals, and wrote 10 final papers totaling 200 double spaced pages. At the dining hall, I ate over 2500 pieces of fruit. I was a guest at 4 roommate’s houses, wore down 14 pairs of shoes, collected 25 Yale related t-shirts, upped my eyeglass prescription 150 degrees, played football on cross campus at least 40 times, and blacked out while drunk exactly zero times. I ended up with a GPA barely lower than the number of girlfriends I’ve had, and I’ve contracted as many tropical diseases as I have won intermural basketball championships. Most importantly, during the 100 days of second semester senior year, I did 10,000 pushups.

I’ve always been a scrawny Asian American. (Currently, I’m 5’11, 145 pounds.) My life has not been devoid of torrid love affairs with exercise: sophomore year, Mike Jones and I worked out in the Berkeley gym 6 days a week, doing resistance dumbbell curls until purple Chinese characters floated through my vision. Every summer, whether I lived in an upscale Beijing dormitory or a shanty in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, I carved out an hour every day to complete my training. But when summer ended and school began, I was never able to continue my fitness push; all progress would atrophy. The shortcut approach du jour never worked either: GOMAD ended because I was lactose intolerant, a 4,000-calorie-a-day meal plan stopped because of the unsavory dining hall food, and whey protein never worked because of its inconvenience. Sometimes, for a week, I would summon heretofore untapped motivation, but it was simply a peak in the boom-and-bust cycle.

Then I met John and Nate. Just kidding—I knew them already. But in the dining hall on Feb 21st, 2011, Nate proclaimed, to nobody in particular, “I want to do 1 million pushups.” John and I fleshed out the vision, and within two hours, we had cobbled together a set of rules, a blog URL, and a promise, deadlocked, to finish 10,000 pushups in 100 days, exactly the amount of time before graduation.

Our brash ambition soon morphed into an electrifying reality. Our friends sent us YouTube videos of one-fingered pushups; we spent our nights debating the efficacy of creating our own domain name; and the pushups we attempted—butt down, elbows at 90 degrees—sprouted from fallow in environments around campus: Bass library, by the video editing room; Berkeley dining hall, by the grand piano; Hillhouse Avenue, close to the entrance of Mason Labs. Kevin, the 4th—and most legitimate—member of our group, even created an Excel spreadsheet pacing our progress. Here’s what my final graph looked like:

Pushups invaded our social lives as well. The nights of our slow, soporific second semester revolved around the game of pushup poker. In this variation of Texas Hold’em, pushups not money, is thrown into the pot. The chip stack, then, is your muscle’s deliverable energy. Graham, John, Warren, and Michael played nearly every night for two weeks; I joined them occasionally, more frequently if there was a sports game I wanted to watch.

My route to 10,000 was slightly more spartan and isolated. I decided every morning to wake up, turn on Grooveshark, and attempt as many pushups as I could before a song ended. I made it from 100 pushups in 15 minutes to 100 in 5 minutes. One cool night after a CASA family dinner, my son challenged me to throw down on the Davenport grass; with adrenaline pouring down my body, I went 51 pushups deep. I was never prouder all semester.

But after a month of dogged resolve, my unadulterated love for pushups began to oil at the edges. It was physical: twinges in my hands and elbows popped up during my daily set; and it was mental: with the novelty of our challenge gone, public moral support had dried up, and John and Nate naturally regressed to the mean in terms of their attention to our quest. The previous buzz of energy was replaced by the sere, desiccated atmosphere of a moderately tedious obligation. Inertia spurred me through my final 2,000 pushups; as I capture here, in my final blog post, the challenge was a microcosm of my four years. It marked the end of an era; the end of college.

After 10,000 pushups, I worked out at Payne Whitney for the first time all semester. I hadn’t touched a free weight for 4 months; and yet, when I gripped the oily bar of the bench press, I found myself lifting 165 easily. It was a new personal record. I walked home ecstatic.

Fast forward 5 months: Yesterday night, I returned from the office at 11:30 p.m., easing my backpack off my shoulders before heading to a 24-hour-noodle-shop for dinner. As I waited for congee and bok choy in garlic sauce, I noticed my arms looked appreciably smaller than I remembered. My litmus test for physical strength, grasping my bicep with my other hand, conveyed a brutal truth: I had lost the gains from 10,000 pushups. The muscle hung off the frame of my bones; when I poked it, the skin swung from side to side, giving the droopy mass momentum. Benching 140 now might be a reach for me.


Starting a new journey is always exciting. The crafting of possibility, the withdrawal of social reservation—it’s a call to shed the dead weight and carry the clean sheets into a new life. But newness always wears off; it has to, because we naturally sink into the background of our surroundings. When the bloom fades, highs turn into bland middles, and the days wax and wane. I’ve already adapted to Manila, and while I have new journeys – new goals – planned out for the year ahead, like running a 5K, which might turn into a sprint triathlon; learning to sing (still need to find a coach); and doing as many sit-ups as there are pageviews for my blog, I’m still considering what’s left after these goals “peter” out.

If you asked me yesterday, I would have told you I needed to suck it up: lower my expectations, and embrace the cyclical nature of human limits to happiness.

Then, cleaning out my email, I stumbled on a speech I starred, sent from John Ela, called, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” by Reverend Martin Luther King Junior.

MLK’s speech – set in the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, directed towards the New Covenant Baptist Church on April 9, 1967 – is an intellectually charged gospel piece. In the background, while the pews murmur, “Yes” and “That’s right,” MLK expounds on the three dimensions to a complete life: length, which is personal accomplishments; breadth, the outward concern for others; and height – a connection to God.

I’ve heard the message, stripped of its prose, delivered plenty of times before: caring about others is the only way to be happy. Focus outwards, not inwards. Place your faith in other people, even without vetting their own intentions. For times in my life, I’ve tried to heed the call of selflessness, but every time, it’s gone the same way as my workout schedule: passionate for days, and dusty after weeks. After all, being a student of psychology and economics, I know too well about rational self-interest, and how everyone has a price, whether monetary, social, or spiritual. True altruism is always shaded by future returns. It’s hard for me to place others before myself, simply because I have a Hobbes-ian belief that, outside of a binding social contract, nobody intrinsically cares about anyone else.

In his speech, Martin Luther King admits a wholly unexpected human flaw: while driving down Simpson Road, he didn’t stop to help a fellow man trying to flag him down. From this seed of disservice, MLK builds up to the good Samaritan question of the era – thinking not, “If I help this man, what will happen to me?” but instead, “What will happen to him if I do not stop?” It’s the same question, reframed for emphasis on the other. This is what I think MLK was trying to get at: even if it’s impossible to help others in every situation, it’s not impossible to think of others in every situation. By flipping a natural cognition upside down, it becomes an optimal default to care about others, almost as natural, eventually, as breathing or eating. Then, it’s not a short-lived goal. It’s a way of life.


MLK’s final words are devoted to height, or the reach for God. Religion has always been a shaky topic for me to handle; while my parents are Buddhist, they practice a bare-bones version that, I think, is accepted and understood to be putatively acceptable. I’m fine with it. Christianity is the real sticking point. When I was in 6th grade, I attended a local Chinese Christian church, only to be bullied by the other kids and taken out by my parents after the pastor asked us for a tithe. In college, I attended church sporadically, but oftentimes with the intention that the activity was something good I should be doing for my soul, instead of thinking in broader strokes, and more outward. I joined Gospel Choir for 3 semesters, but that was for the social environment and the vocational training. Currently, it’s been over half a year since I’ve attended a service.

I also don’t quite believe in God as an intellectual construct. We know, to a vast extent, how to cosmos have been formed, and I believe that, in the near future, everything in this world, and this universe, will be fully explainable. Reaching for god, when he doesn’t exist in my mind – or as a part of me, or in the nature surrounding our cities – is quite difficult. Where do I look?

This is not to say that I don’t want to be religious. I’ve always been enamored of friends who tell me they deal with their faith in alternative, less structured ways. And I’ve had conversations galore about how to really find spiritual inspiration (the consensus: face hardships). But I’ve never cared enough. I practice what MLK calls practical atheism; the kind where I become so involved with the length of my life that I forget to look up and realize that our sun is a celestial being man can never make. My focus is elsewhere, and as a result, God fades into the background.

John (Song)’s take on religion has been my take on religion all throughout college: the only people who need Christianity are the ones who, essentially, are weak – their lives feel incomplete without the Lord, and religion fills a crucial gap. For more high-powered, naturally optimistic people like ourselves, there’s no gap to be covered. And while that mindset has its advantages – for one, it holds me 100% accountable for my actions, none of this forgiveness for my sins cop-out – I’m starting to wonder if a healthy, well-oiled man/machine can’t have both. I think about MLK, whose credibility as a speaker is, obviously, through the roof, and think of the death threats, jail sentences, and the general disquiet throughout his entire life, and wonder if it’s because he’s weak that he needs God, or if God’s there for him to be even stronger.

What MLK preaches is a different kind of goal: instead of a linear path to 10,000 pushups, where one number builds upon the next until a straight, narrow line has been whittled into rock, think about filling out an entire area. A little progress, in a different direction. A line of 10 meters has no area. A square of 10 meters is 100 meters squared. A cube of 10 meters is 1000 meters cubed. A single line will jump and fray at the slightest provocation; it can be pulled up and down easily. A cube is solid, unaffected by the whips and whims of transient disturbances. The goal-setting nature stringing along my happiness – it’s a non-entity in a fully-formed life.

Starting from today, here’s a new goal: transfer some of the energy spent on length to breadth and height – help a friend out, figure out how to reconcile religion. I’m a novice at either, so any advice and encouragement would be appreciated. Needless to say, the learning curve will be steep, and I’ll make mistakes. But with this blog, I’m going to be holding myself fully accountable for my actions. Every Sunday from now on, in addition to posting cool links, I’m going to talk a little about both the breadth and height of my life this week, in terms hopefully as consistent as my descriptions of time spent online. 10,000 pushups and 100 posts later, I’m expanding outwards, and finally filling out my skinny frame.

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