The Dictionary Challenge Finale Part 2: A Swan Song

With the turn of a single page, it is all over. I have read the entire Canadian Oxford Dictionary and all  of it’s 4.6 pounds of definitions.

It feels like we have gone through so much together. We have travelled together. Have shared a bed together. A couch. A floor. A table. A patch of grass. A park bench. We have spent meals together. Early mornings. Late nights. We have even gone hiking together.

Like a tumultuous relationship, I have in varying degrees loved it, hated it, felt disgusted by it, felt empowered by it, resented it, been suspicious of it, been encouraged by it, and respected it. While these emotions can’t accurately be applied to the book itself, they come from the way in which I have engaged with the words that have been chosen, defined and put to page; the words that are a comprehensive representation of my language and the society I am a part of.

Reading the dictionary with CharleyI have spent approximately 370 hours with this gigantic tome over the course of 51 weeks, having finished the challenge with just 11 days to spare.

That’s over two weeks (of full 24 hours days) of my life that I gave to this project. In the way that some jokes are “too soon” to be funny, it’s too soon to decipher which feeling will triumph: the pride from having accomplished this monumental task, the appreciativeness of having learned, grown and expanded my vocabulary, or the soft regret that only a perniciously obstinate victor can feel.

Like many undertakings, I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard. Foolishly I had thought I could read the whole thing in 6 months. Within a few days I realized that was not an appropriate goal and gave myself a year, meaning I would have to read 5 pages a day in order to finish in one year’s time. Even so, I fell behind quickly and steadily; at my worst point I was 242 pages behind. And I paid the price. From there, it took me nearly ten months to get back on track. During that time I had to work so much harder to make up what I had lost, but even that wasn’t good enough sometimes. I read for hours at a time until my eyes were red and I had to re-read words because they were starting to blur together. Some weeks I would fall behind more, but eventually I managed to pull even and in the weeks before my year was up I slowly got ahead.

It took me, on average, about an hour to read 5 pages. That depended on how many words I would scribble in my notebook or how many times I would have to re-read a word to understand it. For the sake of honesty: many chemical entries or overtly scientific concepts, I would read once – not really understand – and move on. And I won’t pretend that I now know every single word. I have read them all, but that doesn’t mean I know them all.

Again, this one book is the equivalent of about 26 average sized novels. Reading a book every two weeks doesn’t seem too difficult, after all, 5 years ago I read a book a week for a year. Despite loving to read, that was a difficult challenge, but this one was a whole other beast. There is no captivating story line. Characters make brief appearances, never to be spoken of again. It is all reference material. It took longer to travel 5 of these pages than 30 pages of a novel, trying to sound out unfamiliar words and truly understand those that were more complex. Often a word would cause me to pause and just sit there contemplating it. Or I would get bored, lose focus and have to backtrack and re-read a page. Those moments were particularly disheartening. My best advice in this regard is to be present. If you’re not, you just end up wasting more time. And time, well, that is really one of our most precious unrenewable resources.

Which brings me to the greatest takeaways of this challenge.

Life Lessons Learned With My Nose in a Dictionary

The two greatest lessons I learned from this challenge almost contradict themselves. First, I realized that a person has more time than they think. If you truly want to do something, if you honestly commit to it – you will find the time. Whether it’s pre-dawn hours in the morning, late nights with red-rimmed eyes, or precious minutes squeezed in between bites of food and beers with friends and daily chores and all the other moments that make up your life. We always say that we’re so busy – and we are – but we choose that. We choose to scroll through social media platforms. We choose to exercise. We choose to watch television. We choose to read. We choose nights with friends, time with family, hikes in the woods, days at the beach. We have more choice in our life than sometimes we like to admit. We choose so much and some of it has purpose, some of it is required, and some of it is a waste.

Idle moments are necessary. No one can run at full steam around the clock. You will exhaust yourself. But when you commit to doing something, you will be surprised about how you can shuffle your schedule around, how you can seemingly create more hours in a day.

Case in point. My other half began writing a novel. Then decided to also train for a marathon. And also works full time, while occasionally doing freelance work. Most of this novel has been written between the hours of 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, before a full day of work, commuting, and now with after-work training that just yesterday consisted of an 11 mile run.

But today, after nearly two years of tireless working, the first draft of that novel has been completed. If you want something badly enough, you will find a way for it.

Reading the dictionary while campingNow for the second thing I learned: while we have more time than we realize – we still don’t have time infinity. We want to do so much – we have so many ideas, so many dreams, so many desires.

For example: I want to start a hobby-based business. I want to get into shape. I want to make dinners that are as good as my mother’s down-home country cooking. I want to learn to do my own taxes. I want to understand economics. I want to make home videos that capture everyday moments. I want more family in my life. I want to go camping, canoeing, roadtripping, swimming, hiking. I want to can fruit, pick berries, plant a garden.

These are all tangible things. They just require time. But – and this is where it almost seems like a contradiction of the first point – there really isn’t enough time for everything that we want. So we must choose wisely. Because there is enough time for what is important.

And what’s important depends on you.

A couple years ago someone told me that it’s not accurate to say that you don’t have time. You can only say that it’s not a priority right now. I hated it. Every time I did something that didn’t align with my goals because of “time”, that famous voice that sits in the back of a person’s mind would pipe up and say “it’s obviously not a priority.”

You can’t argue with it because it’s true. So even though I hated it because I felt guilt about choosing one thing over another, I respect it so much more. I like to flip it around when I’m feeling lethargic and ask “is this a priority?” and sometimes that’s enough to get me going in the right direction. We need reminders of why we’re doing what we do because it can be easy to lose sight of that.

A third lesson is patience. Not all great things take time, but many do. This is where I struggle the most. I always want to be standing at the finish line hoisting the trophy above my head. This is where I have such great respect for my other half. Two years is a long time. (Some say I have commitment issues) But finishing that first draft came from diligently working away as a handful of words in the beginning turned into pages and pages stretching across all this time into a completed novel.

It’s so easy to look at where you want to be and give up. It seems so far away, so monumental, so impossible – so we quit before we even really try for it. “Every journey begins with a single step” and “one foot in front of the other” are such tired old clichés and they really rub me the wrong way, yet, I have to admit, begrudgingly, that there is truth to them.

As I look at the dictionary – The Behemoth – I can’t Reading the dictionary on the patioimagine doing it again. Taken all at once is seems impossible. However, I remember opening it for the first time and slowly getting to work. An hour later, I had only read 3 pages. 1,812 to go.

While it didn’t necessarily keep me on track, having a daily goal of 5 pages made this challenge much more manageable. Although a daily goal of 5 pages would allow me to finish in one year’s time, that meant there were no days off and that was a big mistake. So, a word to the wise, before you embark on a challenge, make sure you consider all parts of it and make a realistic plan.

Be patient, but be committed. You will get there eventually. It might take longer than you want, but don’t ever quit. You can fail and you can take time off, but don’t quit. Victory depends on you showing up.

A Blog Dedicated to the Underdogs

I haven’t really talked much about why I began this blog. For the most part I’m a very private person so it’s surprising that I would put myself out there like this. Initially, it all began when I made the second biggest move of my life (at the time). After university, I moved to a tiny town in northern Alberta for work. I considered it my year of exile. I knew no one and didn’t think there was anything there for me other than an opportunity to write for a living and so I planned to stay for a single year to get experience before moving on. (I ended up staying two years, made some of the most incredible friends, had the best summer of my life, and most incredibly – fell in love. Things don’t always go according to plan, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

I spent my first two weeks living in a hotel mapping out how to make the most of this exile. It began as somewhat of a bucket list – a list of things I wanted to not just do, but accomplish. The first was to solve a Rubik’s cube. I did that within a couple weeks.

Then, I wanted to see just what I was capable of. Having been raised on a farm, meat was a staple of my diet, to say the least, and I wanted to see if I could go vegan for 3 months. So I did that. Then I wanted to read a book a week for a year. So I did that too. Soon, people were interested in these “challenges” and I realized that they could identify with the part of the challenge that was about pushing yourself to accomplish something.

It was that which prompted me to share the experience and begin Exit Sideways.

Truth be told, I have always wanted to inspire people. I am not an incredible human being and that’s what I wanted this blog to be about: anybody can accomplish nearly anything. While I take on random challenges that most people can’t directly relate to, I wanted people to see the process behind it all. The struggles, the set-backs, the highs, the lows, the failures, and ultimately the successes.

We always see success stories of high profile people. We only see the underdog story once they’ve achieved so-called greatness and I believe that because of that we have a sort of mentality that says “well, there’s something special about them. They’re not an ordinary person like me.” I wanted to show that underdog story, not from the perspective of someone who has somehow “made it,” but from the perspective of a regular person striving to accomplish something, to be something better, to say “I am capable” and to go for it.

I began this for the underdogs. The folks who didn’t believe in themselves. Who didn’t think that they were special. Who looked up to those who had reached out and taken hold of their dreams.

I started this for those people because that is who we all are until we’re the ones standing there with our dreams in our hands. We think those who have success have some sort of “it” factor. Yes, some people have more talent or more skill, but what sets people apart is those who work for it. Hard work and commitment can accomplish more than that of talent. Most of the time, it’s a regular person who worked hard and dared to actually try for greatness. No, your goal is probably not to read the dictionary, but whatever it is that you want, the struggle is always the same.

So I am no one and everyone. What I have done is not what you will do. But if you look back through these challenges, past the lackadaisical writing, you’ll see someone struggling to achieve something. I don’t always win. And that’s important because no matter what you do, you will fail many times. I just hope that you don’t give up.

Persistence is key.

Now, for the Swan Song

Every challenge, I learn something about myself or about life. However, I learned the most valuable lessons during the dictionary challenge and I had to learn them the hard way. The reason I have such conflicting emotions about this challenge is that every time I look at The Behemoth – which took hours and days of my life from me – I see what I gained, but I also see what I lost. Even though I am proud of what I accomplished and have learned a lot, there is also that empty feeling where the same voice that had urged me on, despite many days of wanting to quit, is now whispering “what’s next?”

I still cannot decide if this voice wears a halo or horns.

The dictionary and the two notebooks I have nearly filled with insights and favourite words sits in the corner while I play with my cat, exercise, make food and try to get used to the freedom that has been suddenly thrust upon me.

Was it worth it?

That damn voice can be an asshole sometimes.

Over the past year, I have moved vertically across the country from Yellowknife, one of Canada’s most northerly cities, to the southern B.C. city of Kelowna. I have read two other books. I began a new job. I discovered that wine isn’t just rotten grape juice. I shed my parka for shorts. I have won an award. I have gained weight. I have climbed a figurative mountain and many literal mountains. I have played hockey games and softball games. I have seen the inside of a gym. I have been a broomball champion. I have lost. And I have won.

I have also read the entire unabridged Canadian Oxford Dictionary cover to cover.

Reading the dictionary on the floor

And with that I am taking an indefinite break from Exit Sideways. Perhaps I will return a few months from now, maybe a few years, or quite realistically, never. I learned that my time is so utterly precious and I have so much to do yet for myself. So thank you for reading. I know I have inspired a few people along the way and while that is why I started this, I’ve also realized you don’t need me.

You’ve got this.

To read part 1 of the Finale, see The Dictionary Challenge Finale Part 1: A Lexical Overview

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Dictionary Challenge Weeks 28-29: Halfway Check-in of the Vitals

DictionaryReading the dictionary is like trying to get fit after you’ve let junk food annihilate your existence. You hit the gym and you watch the miles build, you count the reps, the crunches, the calories, and you’re giving so much but that damned scale barely budges. But you do it, week after week, and then one day you realize you’ve lost 10 pounds of excess weight. But that’s not where you quit, because you’re not done yet. You haven’t reached your goal. So you keep going, week following week following week following week following week following week….

Your entire existence has been redefined by the effort you’re putting forth. You’re tired. But you can’t quit. You’ve come so far and even though that counts for something, you know what you set out to do. So even though your muscles are aching you wake up and you begin again.

And while this is required, perhaps even admirable, there is still a cynical exhaustion that comes with it.

You see, in a way, the dictionary haunts me. The bookmarkbookmark I use was something my significant other had made me a few years ago. It was charming, once upon a time – an indication of sweet romance. But now, the meaning has become much more literal… in an unfortunate way. Every morning I find the place I had left off reading from and every night I place the bookmark as I close The Behemoth for a night’s rest. And there’s that book mark reminding me that tomorrow is going to be the same. Every morning. Every night. Every morning. Every night. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

You’d think I’d just use a different bookmark wouldn’t you?

Nope.

I am just over half way and sometimes I look at the braid of my bookmark sticking out from between the pages and I feel, well, a bit more than a little stupid for ever taking this on. But other times I look at it and feel like I’m accomplishing something great. That’s how it goes with anything. When you put your effort towards something and it demands so much from you – you’re proud. Even if it’s something as peculiar as reading the dictionary.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend and she said I should make my next challenge to NOT do a single challenge for a year. Sounds easy right? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t do it. Because working towards something – whether it’s perhaps more practical like running a marathon or writing a novel – it gives you a sense of purpose; it’s rewarding. And that’s something we all need. It goes beyond work and relationships and family. This is that extra thing you do that’s all yours.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Or that you’re not going to want to quit. Or that you might feel genuine hate for what you’re doing at times. But to persevere, to conquer the giant, to slay the dragon… well that feeling trumps it all. And it feels pretty damn good.

Alas, I am not there yet. This giant – The Behemoth – is still requiring much more slaying.

I usually do a halfway point check in with each challenge and though I’m now past that, I’m still going to do a belated check-in of the vitals:

Mentally I’m exhausted. This is due to the fact that I fell so far behind at the get-go that I now, each week, usually try to double the required reading. Over the past few weeks I have also had what I’m calling a “pre-headache.” It’s not an actual headache, but my head hurts and feels like it could develop into a full-blown headache.

Emotionally I’m a roller coaster. Sometimes I’m feeling bad ass, crushing page after page. Other times doubt creeps in as I wonder just what the hell I’m doing and I feel like a freak for spending so much time doing this. But then I read an awesome word I didn’t know or learn a historical fact and all is swell.

Physically… I’m a train wreck. I mean, other than toting this nearly 5 pounds of definitions around everywhere I go, I don’t have time for regular exercise. I play sports a couple times a week, ride my bike to work, and go on an occasional hike, but my poor dumbbells from the Chin Up Challenge have unfortunately been much neglected. I had also taken up drinking coffee for the past 4 months (though I just quit this past Monday) to keep me going.

I don’t know what category this fits under… but I am also now acutely aware of paper density. The dictionary has very thin pages.

Overall, this is a surprisingly demanding challenge thus far (and let’s be real – will probably only feel more demanding the closer to finished I get) but, like I said above… I can’t quit. I wanted to do this and now I’m going to see it through to the end. Learning things I didn’t know before, especially words, is really awesome. It also makes me want to read the Encyclopedia. But that’s a whole other beast I’m not actually considering… yet. I’ve learned a lot from the dictionary and would with the Encyclopedia even more so. Plus, that would be a much easier read.

Now, I’m full of little tidbits and facts that come popping up in every day conversation. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I diverge some random piece of information, my significant other asks just one word, “dictionary?” To which the answer is yes about 95% of the time.

To sum it all up: yeah, wanting to read the dictionary is weird… but also awesome.

Now, because I know you’d all rather have read about the last two weeks of interesting words, I won’t completely short change you on this post: The second sense of the word mad money is “emergency cash carried by a woman on a date for bus fare if needed.” If needed. Hmmm. Now I wonder what kind of situation that would be…

Week 28/29 Stats:

Starting Word: lotus-eater                     Ending Word: Maryland

Total Pages: 949/1815                            Ahead/Behind: -76 pages

Frozen Days 16-17: The Lonely Bench

Temperature: -18.9 degrees Celsius (16th) and -15.9 (17th)

Feels Like: -27 degrees Celsius (16th) and -25 (17th)

Wind: WNW 13 km/hr (16th) ENE 17 km/hr (17th)

It’s midday and there’s no one around. Great puffs of hardened snow are piled up around me as I sit on one of the few accessible benches in the city. It was quite the find alright – especially since almost all of the other benches scattered throughout the city have been overtaken by piles of snow. The wind tears across my face, but I bear the sting because I have nowhere else to go. I feel out of place because I am loitering. There is nothing to watch – no birds in the sky or water lapping at the shoreline or people playing in the park. I imagine the people in the buildings of downtown looking out the window and thinking there is something odd about the person who is just sitting there, still and purposeless. I imagine they can tell that I’m not waiting for anyone, that I am alone, and that I have nowhere to be and nothing to do but let the time pass. Which it does. I eventually stand up and walk away having done nothing but scratch my mitts against an asteroid-shaped chunk of snow. The cold has seeped past my protective layer of clothing and I am chilled. My face is a mottled burgundy. But as I leave, I place that chunk of snow on the bench. Although imperfect and rough around the edges, it is shaped like a heart. Perhaps, for someone who finds themselves at The Lonely Bench, that is something after all.

Time: 2:32P – 3:46 (16th) 12:45P – 2:06P (17th)

Today’s Minutes: 74 + 81 = 155

Total Challenge Minutes: 1932/3720

Ahead/Behind: -108