Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding Inspiration in the Strangest Places

Today I found myself fascinated, for the second time, by the story of Felix Baumgartner and his supersonic jump from 128,000 ft. The TV was on in the background while I was scribbling out some Spanish homework. It was the NatGeo channel's detailed story of Felix's ascent in his balloon, including the technical difficulties of his visor fogging up and mission control talking him through a solution, and then the step-by-step from his ground crew as he prepared to jump from his capsule towards earth. Things like (and I paraphrase), "Move your seat to the upright position. Remove your safety belt. Now slide to the front of the chair" etc... until he was poised at the open door, feet outside in the atmosphere. Even though this was perhaps the third time I'd seen his jump, I couldn't turn away, and certainly held my breath watching him shoot out of sight of the capsule's camera, begin to spin uncontrollably, miraculously regain control, and finally land as lightly as if he'd merely stepped off a stool. It was awesome.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anything?

Right now - everything. 

As you know, I'm back in language training which is certainly one of those times that is always more fun in retrospect. However, once the honeymoon of, "I'm earning my salary to learn a language!" wears off (usually after about week two), we all begin to realize that we too are merely hurtling towards an inevitable landing in the language exam center. During our descent, we have moments (sometimes even weeks), where we feel as Felix did when his visor started to fog and he couldn't see the horizon, followed sometimes by an uncontrolled spin where we begin to imagine our inevitable demise. While Felix faced the atmospheric pressure, we're faced with internal pressures to succeed in our training; the pressure to make a deadline and arrive at post on time (sometimes someone is waiting to leave for our arrival); and the omnipresent pressure of not wanting to look/feel like a total idiot in front of the rest of our class, our teacher, and finally on the fateful day - the examiners. Then there's the cherry-on-top pressure of learning an "easy language" like Spanish. I mean, they use the same alphabet and pronounce all the letters as they're written, how hard could that be, right? (And no, FSI doesn't call Spanish an "easy" language, they call it a "world language." But it's only because they're trying to be polite. Don't think we didn't notice that other languages are referred to as either "hard" or "super hard.") 

Watching Felix's fall today, I completely related to what must've been going through his mind as he careened towards terra firma. Describing his spinning loss of control (i.e. what most of watching believed to be the last moments of his life), he stated:

"In that situation, when you spin around, it's like hell and you don't know if you can get out of that spin or not. Of course it was terrifying. I was fighting all the way down because I knew that there must be a moment where I can handle it."

I know this feeling he's describing well, and it comes during the part of my Spanish exam called "speaking at length" where we have to speak about a topic for 6-10 minutes in an organized and professional manner, displaying all our grammatical wares like a tour through the galleries of our "Nuevas Rutas" textbook. 

"Oh look, here's the entryway with the present and preterit, and there's the imperfect. Please note the stylish use of connectors and charming idiomatic accent phrase. Finally, don't miss the subjunctive beautifully displayed at the finale!" All this with only a five minute prep time and no mission control in my earpiece, reminding me to unstrap my seat belt and slide to the front of the seat before jumping. There are times during these presentations (we practice them weekly in class) where I realize I'm spinning myself into sentences from which I cannot recover, hurtling towards a conclusion that is nowhere on the horizon with a seriously foggy visor. I begin to panic and start wondering why I didn't ever teach myself to faint on command. 

I mean really - this is just a language exam, right? If he can jump from 128,000 feet, for nine minutes, over four of which were in free-fall, hitting a top speed of 833.9 mph and including a few minutes of having to find the fortitude to right himself from a potentially irreversible spin - then I can manage the same amount of time in front of two examiners, dribbling out some stuff about the environment, immigration or the changing role of women in Latin America. 

I've decided that Felix is my new hero. Because besides all the above, he is also Austrian. Which means he was also communicating with his mission control team in a non-native language. So truly - I have no excuse.  I will fight all the way down because I know that there must be a moment where I can handle it.

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