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Hangman and 'The Matrix'

more percent efficient

Computer Science 101 is a class of more than 100 students, the largest lecture I’ve attended at this university. It meets in a large hall reminiscent of a movie theatre with tiered seats, a glass-windowed booth in back and plenty of those irritating flip-up armrest desks that aren’t quite large enough to securely balance a laptop. Never having taken a computer science course in the past, I was not sure what to expect when I enrolled last spring. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Despite that one group of rowdy freshmen who won’t get the hint and quiet down after the professor asks them for the fourth time, the lectures are interesting. More than just being useful, in fact, being able to code makes me feel cool. I can pretend to be some hacker, an international spy, perhaps, or even Neo from the “Matrix” trilogy.

Unfortunately, the variable that I didn’t factor into my calculations was the workload. Weekly assignments (read: “projects”) and problem sets (read: “smaller projects”) quickly rack up hours in the double-digits to complete. Getting everything done has proven to be quite stressful on occasion, and it was this effect that recently made me wonder about the impact stress was having on my life.

Why are we so worried all the time? Or, as the Joker wondered in his own keen and disturbing way in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” “Why so serious?” Even when we’re being productive, we feel as though there are mountains weighing down above us. Each of us is Atlas with a world of projects, papers and problem sets on our shoulders. It’s gotten to the point where even when I “relax” I have the constant nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I should be doing something useful instead. But just like the physical strain that wears us down until we stoop and bend and break, the mental and emotional strain of stress has an invisible influence on our lives. What is strain doing to me? More importantly, how do I fix it? There’s no use identifying the poison without also procuring an antidote.

Our friendly, neighborhood WebMD article kindly informed me that “stress becomes negative (distress) when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, the person becomes overworked and stress-related tension builds.” I think that that description sounds familiar to a lot of us. The author also noted, “Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression and anxiety.” Definitely something to avoid or ameliorate.

Now, at this point many stress-reduction articles and essays I’ve read will detour down a specific path. “Meditate several times a day…” one frequent refrain goes, or, “just be present with your emotions until you begin to notice…” Those are viable strategies. I’ve tried meditation and it’s awesome and relaxing. “Being present” with your emotions and accepting them without judgement is a little trickier, but it can still be helpful. Nevertheless, there has to be an option somewhat more fun than sitting still for 20 minutes on your bed, all the while knowing that your roommate is staring at you wondering why you’re humming “ohmmmmm” over and over under your breath. (And no, the “fun” option can’t just be “party hard on Friday and Saturday to forget about the struggles of college life”.) Since I started thinking about the amount of stress I’ve taken on in my life, I think I have come up with one possible treatment.

I’m not saying I have the panacea for all of us overworked and under-appreciated worker bees, but there is something I’ve been doing more recently that seems to help. I’m going to be science-y and call it “remedial playfulness.” What does that mean? It’s more of a command than anything else. It means, “Have fun!” Not in a boozy or carousing sense, but as an everyday occurrence.

There are ways to make any activity more diverting, amusing and playful. In high school I used to draw pictures on physics tests of whatever the word problem was describing. If “Bob was shooting a 30-kilogram cannonball from a cannon pointed at a 75 degree angle,” you had better believe that Mr. Fidler was going to chuckle as he graded and came across my enthusiastic (if not overly artistic) stick-figure drawing of Bob and his artillery piece in the margins. More recently, French professors have complimented my writing for taking “stylistic risks,” when I really was just messing around with words and cracking inside jokes.

Think outside the box. Look at the requirements enforced upon you and then play around with them. One of my favorite authors and motivational personalities, Tim Ferris, wrote, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission…If it isn’t going to devastate those around you, try it and then justify it…Get good at being a troublemaker and saying sorry when you really screw up.” You’re not here to be boring, you’re here to be bold--to rattle the status quo and give your unique shine to everything you do.

Another of my favorite self-help authors, Og Mandino, made a point that perfectly complements my rhetoric. “You may work grudgingly,” he declared, “or you may work gratefully; you may work as a human or you may work as an animal. Still, there is no work so rude that you may not exalt in it; no work so demeaning that you cannot breathe a soul into it; no work so dull that you may not enliven it.” All of this doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of hard work ahead of you in the game of life. But it does mean that you can choose to turn a lot of meaningless drudgery on its head when you remember that life is indeed that, a game. Start playing, and you’ll see what I mean.

My computer was dimmed down to save battery, but the lines of text still showed bold and bright on the screen.

“Welcome, Neo, to the Hangman Game.

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (b)

You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. (r)

Type (b) or (r).”

High-fives and fist bumps all around in my Computer Science 101 study group. My basic “design-a-computer-program-to-play-Hangman” project had just leveled up. Let the fun begin.

Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “more percent efficient,” runs on alternate Fridays.