at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: life-adventure

The Tyranny of the Extraordinary

Ordinary life is just so ordinary, we say. And we forget that it’s also life.

New Year’s passed, Western and Chinese alike. As a special night and day, it was passed in special ways.
Ways that I, frankly, think of as generally stupid. What else do you call it when people who keep complaining about their lack of money go out of their way to blow up their hard-earned cash in pretty explosions of light and loud booms? How is it sensible to start out the first day of a new year sleep-deprived and  with a hangover?

When we are alone and quiet we are afraid that something will be whispered in our ear, and so we hate the silence and drug ourselves with social life….. Friedrich Nietzsche

Then again, what good would it be not to mark the completion of one of life’s cycles? We’re all too little aware of them anymore, anyways; and starting out a new cycle like any other day just misses the need for their marking.

These kinds of things, you will best decide for yourself, considering the social circles you’re in. The way such special days seem to require extraordinary behavior, and the extraordinary can only be defined (and done) in certain, actually rather ordinary, ways should, however, give us pause.
After all, we want our lives to be a bit special in general, too.

A life of boredom is hardly a life worth living.

The rise of social media has only lifted this theme to all-new heights, given all the attention and seeming success accruing to those who do extraordinary things and even appear to be extraordinary beings. Our attention is drawn there, we will have strong feelings about that which we notice, we will be inspired (or appalled) – and all we do, for the vast majority of our time, will pale in comparison. It’s inspiring what feats the top athletes can perform, what kind of success and level of accomplishment many a personal development guru can apparently achieve (and how), what charisma and control and intellect so many a modern myth’s hero can portray.

You? You’ll never be like that. And so, if we compare ourselves only with the seemingly best, and nowadays not just the better ones in our immediate social circles (where we’d probably see a mix of talents and also know of the problems they’re facing and the weaknesses they have) but the top-of-the-(online-)world ones, how should we ever be satisfied with what we ourselves can do and be?

The problem even applies to yet more simple things. Looking around at what people seem to do, judging by what one hears about, there are only the wildest parties, the longest runs, the most sexual experiences, the polyglots who know the most languages, the fastest learners, the fanciest dishes.

In comparison, what good is the run through the boring city neighborhood where you could go for a run, the going-out just to chat with a few friends, the hard and slow slog of learning you might be able to do. Let alone, having to do the dishes and wash the dirty laundry, cook just to put food on the table, perform in the drudgery of a job…

“[I] abhor the dull routine of existence.” (Sherlock Holmes)

Just a subway stop... until you look closer and think about it

Just a subway stop… until you look closer and think about it

Understandable a thought, but it’s elementary that existence is predominantly routine, and it is as dull as you allow it to be. Outside stimulation may be necessary to break us out of routines, but it can also become a drug of choice blinding us to how existence is only as dull a routine as we allow it to become. Nothing against Sherlock Holmes, but maybe the superior intellect – or at least, the superior ‘liver‘ – is one who does not need a break of routine but makes his/her existence less dull and routine. I don’t think it takes a superior intellect to live and make life more interesting, creative, better, either.

The problem isn’t that life is so ordinary. There is adventure in the everyday, if we just seek it.

It is your life and what you do with it that holds the key. All the social comparison in the world isn’t going to do you any good, all the dreaming about what others have and do isn’t going to change you. Those we see as great and accomplished also have their weaknesses, sometimes perhaps even in and through the awe-inspiring presentation of and adoration for their greatness. After all, if you are getting too much praise (and get too good at ignoring the trolls, as is somewhat necessary nowadays) you will also get a skewed sense of yourself and may miss the criticism that would let you get better. You have to live your own damn life. If you want it to be better, make it better.

Better isn’t what’s great and most-adored. And, more importantly, life isn’t only that which is great, let alone what one gets publicly acknowledged, let alone adored, for. The great challenge we all face is to live predominantly ordinary lives – how could they be anything but average, on average? It’s not an accomplishment to do something you’re really good at and easily get accolades for doing without getting better at it and trying new things. There, it’s the greater challenge to just do ordinary things, live an ordinary life, and find and create the better in it, anyways.


If it is adventure you seek, it is all there to be found… in the attitude and the doing.
(And not just in my Salzkammergut-inspired exemplary, and hopefully a little inspirational, ways ;) )

There is so amazingly much talk about the importance of awareness and attitude for happiness, so much search for fun and excitement in a humdrum existence, and so many a promise of everything that one product or another, from the latest electronic gadget to the next great vacation package, would supposedly offer, it seems it all ought to be understood and utilized. It isn’t.

If it is adventure you seek, at least you may be a step ahead of those still caught up in seeking nothing but comfort(s), but we still tend to get misled by the tyranny of the extraordinary where anything worthy of being called adventure has to be something extreme and outstanding. No induction into National Geographic’s Explorers Hall of Fame, no dice.

As much as we say that life’s about the living, hear that attitude is everything, we let ourselves get directed not by how we live and why, but by outside perceptions.

But, there is an element of positive thinking, of how a positive attitude can matter to your life, indeed: If you go into it seeing it as an adventure, chances are that you can make it so. Of course, it’s still easier when what you do is something special, not overly ordinary, let alone drudgery forced on you. And yet.

New Year’s Eve, I went to bed before midnight, putting my early-bird habit over celebrations.
New Year’s Day, I got up early, had the usual morning matcha and got to work on my writing.

I had thought about going up a mountain to catch the sunrise there, but my wife and I decided it would be much nicer to be there when she wakes up in the new year. So, stay I did, prepared her breakfast – then set out for a mountain tour in daylight. Good compromise, balancing family life, security, and the adventures of the ordinary and the unusual. With quite the view:

01012014 Traunstein Panorama

Getting up being thankful to have another day and approaching the day wondering what adventure it will bring – or rather, what adventure can be brought into it – can very much help be more active and thus find more that is of interest. Of course, we all get used to what is normal, fall into habits of what we always do and stop seeing what we always see.

There’s something to be said for that.

Not having to think about where you put the keys, what you’re going to wear (let alone, if there’ll be anything clean left or if doing the laundry was on the list but not a point that got done), and even what to do with your time and when, can be immensely helpful. It can even free up the mental capacity (and time) to focus on the adventurous.

Much of the recent adventure was of the mind, in the passive form of watching Sherlock, and in the active form of reading about different issues of interest. Mainly, in real books, for they provide the deep immersion that helps be somewhere and become someone else.

Adventure is the other side, and of course it’s easier with a change of circumstances. Travel somewhere far-enough away and different enough, and it will be easy to get out of routine habits, especially of seeing. Foreign experiences are called eye-opening for a reason.

Travel isn’t the panacea it’s often cracked up to be, though. We often just bring our (mis)conceptions of how “they” are and of what it is that we want to see and do – and why – along. It can be just as easy (or hard) to open one’s eyes to the new and exciting somewhere else as to the unseen and interesting where you are supposedly at home.

All it takes is a conscious break in routine, an attitude shift towards a desire to see and experience.

Just, take a different path than usual.
Stop and look up where you’d normally hunker down and rush through.
Set out on a photo safari.
Check out event listings in your area, pick something you wouldn’t normally go to, and imagine yourself going there to explore.

Starting the new year, even – or especially? – as the weather was not the best, I went out on January 5 to experience another of the traditions in the Alpine region where I spend time (not least, for the mountain running) whenever I can, the Salzkammergut: the Glöcklerlauf (“bell-ringers run,” if you must have a translation).

Which is this…

Get some new recipe or some new ingredient and try it out. (This example points to perhaps the craziest thing we’re doing, getting ourselves so used to certain ways of eating, so set in our ways – and nowadays, so sold to the industrial machine – we don’t even remember the foodways and diversity that used to exist and has usually left its traces, we don’t even want to try out anything new, and we overlook many pleasures and health-promoting possibilities in the process.)

Recently, I expanded my baking skills to include Ischler Törtchen. Okay, not the healthiest, but among the cookies they would be classified as, they are veritable cakes. Especially made this way…


And, having mentioned the running: This has recently become (even) less a matter of regular endurance training than one of adventuring, too. Going out in the mountains, picking different paths over my favorite one among them.

Again, it’s easier in one place than another, in the less rather than more usual. 45 minutes up a mountain still mean that you got up a mountain; 45 minutes in the usual flat environs mean nothing but having gone out for only 45 minutes. It’s harder to create excitement for the latter – and then again, shaping attitudes to work more satisfyingly, opening eyes and minds to the changes that always happen, learning to get excited about things, the simple ones and the special, seeing them as exciting because they are and because they are made to be… That’s living.

Active, adventurous, exploratory living.

Running Alpine Paths

Finding Myself on the Path to Hell…

… and the way is up, because it’s the Höllkogel (“hell peak”) I’m talking about, and it’s the path to better.

Snow in the Crags, August 1, 2012

Snow in the Crags, August 1, 2012

The backs of my hands hurt. You can see a distinct line where the shirt began, and find another color again on my palms. Sunburn.

I was dehydrated enough I partially re-filled my water bottle with some of last winter’s leftover snow to melt and drink that; with the water I brought and begged for, I easily drank a gallon in total – and needed more. What I had initially brought with me was just one liter (less than one-third of a gallon).

Ascending, my heart rate was pushing right into the red.

Repeatedly, I wondered how I ever made it up during the mountain marathon earlier this month. I thought that it would make more sense to turn around and head back. Yet, I drudged on.

Often enough, I felt weak and slow – and yet, passed all the other hikers, sometimes even running. With the backpack I was carrying.

In other words: I had a fun day.

Having recently returned from a few days in Latvia (photography from Riga, here; report still on the to-do list), successfully participated in the mountain marathon around Lake Traun, and spent almost two weeks in Italy (we’ll get to that in a following post, too), my wife and I decided to head to the Salzkammergut again.

I decided to move up the Feuerkogel and the Höllkogel again, after the trouble ascending the first during the mountain marathon, and having climbed the latter once before.

Otherwise, in the usual flat part of the country where we live, I don’t exactly get in much hill training – there simply isn’t enough of them – and these peaks are some of the first, but tallest, at the very beginning of the Alps. In other words, they are already mountains, but they can still be run up; they don’t have to be climbed.

So what?, you may be thinking now. What’s it to me?

You don’t have to care. Certainly not about the little stupidities  I made. In fact, I’d very much appreciate it if you didn’t comment about them.

There’s also, though, the lessons that make such running adventures the perfect training for life:

For a bit of adventure, you don’t have to go to far-away places. Your own backyard, often even literally, can be enough. You just need to get into the spirit; go out and explore. The alpine meadows held lots of interesting plant life, by the way, including Wolf’s Bane (aconite, which is highly poisonous) and wild oregano (which is tasty). The Almrausch was flowering, the bees were buzzing about, and the dwarf mountain pines exuded their fine wild aroma…

A bit of sun, and plants holding on

In the course of a run, there are steep ascents that make you barely able to walk on, bringing you to the point of wanting to just leave it be, robbing you of what feels like all your energy – and you may not even know why you are stupid enough to just slough on, one foot in front of the other. But you do.

And then, there’s a sweeping view that rewards you for all the effort, a descent that is easily run, bounding from stone to stone – and even on the next ascent, you now know that there’s more, and still more, energy in you.

Sweeping Vistas

Over time, not only do these experiences add up. You also look around, and you see that people of all different ages and body shapes are able to at least go for a leisurely hike here. Doing more and more, you see that the effort you’re making, as leisurely or agonizing as it may be, brings you forward.

Where only too many people decide that they don’t have the energy for anything but passive TV consumption and junk food, and get into a spiral that reduces their energy, fitness, motivation,… ever more, you do the opposite.

Go out, find paths that are hard enough you may sometimes think that walking them is hellish but that lead to ever – better fitness, greater health, more experiences and knowledge, a better character – and walk them. Or even run.

Do it well, and the pain will disappear again. What you have learnt, however, will be with you.

Running Alpine Paths

Literacies and Learning, Admiration and Inspiration

Recently, with all the running, I’ve also been finding an interest in inspiring books by endurance athletes, describing their personal story. Dean Karnazes has been in that circuit for a while already, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run has only just been released, Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra came out a little while ago.

In a way, Tim Ferriss should be mentioned, as much as I dislike the self-promotion and adulation involved in his work – or is that life? –  as one person who’s not just into fitness, but also general learning, experiences, lifestyle – an exploratory lifestyle after a certain fashion, just not often with the deeper growth towards living in this world, deeply involved, rather than skimming over experiences. Still, even butting heads, he is an inspiration…

Read More

The Exploratory Lifestyle – Setting Out to Become at Home

Joseph Rock on Horse, in YunnanThe age of adventure, the era of explorers – it all seems a thing of the past.

Now, the best you can do is action sports and extreme travel – but there’s a big difference: The earlier explorers didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into, and went to the white spots on the maps not just for the heck of it, but also to increase knowledge.
Or at least, that’s what also happened and was the reason given to their supporters…

These times seem far gone.

Read More

What Adventure?

I was just on a train to Beijing, taking some time off to run some errands.
Strange situation, being separated from my love, but in order to organize things so that we can be together.

Alone on the train, I was thinking, reminiscing:
When I was a bit younger, I watched Michael Palin’s journeys… “Around the World in 80 days“, “Full Circle” around the Pacific…

and I would be particularly fascinated by his adventures in East Asia. Now, I’m on a train in China myself, being here the second year, with everything looking to my being here for a third, and longer, more often – and it doesn’t feel particularly like an adventure.

Sure, it still is a different country, I still can’t understand – let alone speak – anywhere near as much as I’d like to, there is quite enough to wonder about, and yet… I wonder if it’s an issue of my girlfriend making me feel so at home, the academic/teaching context being such a location independent situation (or actually, very much location-based, but rather conditionally so), or a matter of personal attitude.

It sometimes feels as if, had I really been looking for a Buddhist equanimity, I have been rather too successful at it. My computer not working, especially if I want to contact my girl – that is something that can get me raving. Seeing her again will also be emotional. Otherwise, however, I don’t know. Am I following André Heller’s words that ‘the true adventures are in your head – and if they are not in your head, they are nowhere to be found’?

Traveling with Ellis, we were joking that I “just don’t do excitement.”

About languages, I have somewhat lost the excitement about learning them, exploring new ones, and I am looking to get it back. Interest in languages has been so much a part of me, it’s just wrong to lose that (and it’s just the daily grind that has come in between, as it uses up time and motivation to sit down for studies).

Give me some observation in daily life, some comment – or some chile peppers, for that matter – however, and watch me go.
I guess it’s just not daily life, and even less the shallow excitement about exotic places, that gets me. What’s behind daily life, why people act the way they do, how we can get ourselves around to living well in a planetary context, those are the things that do get me excited.

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