Putting More FIRST(s) in Life. Boondoggle or Benefit?

I suspect I wasn’t alone during August as I grew weary of hearing about the “Great American Solar Eclipse.” You couldn’t escape it.

Ten months before it was barely a blip on my solar radar, until my brother-in-law explained the historic significance of the unusual occurrence. Being alerted early, I actually found lodging not too far from the “path of totality.” [Frankly, the staggering mark-ups on accommodations during the preceding months could constitute an entire other blog post.]

Between the time of booking and the actual ‘event’, I purchased authorized eye goggles (really just a piece of aluminized Mylar film in a 10-cent paper frame). I learned the dos-don’ts and things to look for in an eclipse. I visited the NASA website numerous times while planning where to drive to view “totality” in Oregon. For commemoration, I even purchased the first-ever thermochromic ‘souvenir’ eclipse postal stamps. I was ready!

To end any suspense, as planned, I ‘took part’ in the event. Just to say I ‘saw’ it seems lame. Thus, I participated in the radiant occasion in the small central Oregon town of Sweet Home. Awake early in the semi-dark for the hour drive, the sun foreshadowed its later specular play of peek-a-boo. We four friends prepared a picnic breakfast at the scene. We didn’t plan for it to be so cold a few hours before watch time. Not all plans are perfect. Luckily, we had lots of blankets and coverings to ease sitting on the frigid cement picnic tables. Bundled or not, it didn’t keep my hands from shaking when I brought spoon to mouth. Ah, but then the guest of honor arrived and things quickly warmed under its heat.

Until that day, I admit I didn’t fully understand the concept of “totality” vs. even 99% eclipse. As millions of others that day, I was mesmerized during the 1+ minute of total eclipse – looking directly at it without my glasses. [Yes, safe when in totality.] Temperatures fell seemingly as fast as a meteor to earth. Then the sun’s corona glowed with an outer-rim looking like shimmering beads of abalone shell. Pink little mountains rose up at the 1:00 location on the twinkling disc. I am certain my mouth fell open. The less-than-feared crowd of about 150 on the High School field (and a few in the adjacent park) spontaneously shouted and cheered. Finding it difficult to restrain myself, I mimicked my one-time playmates. It’s understandable that words don’t do justice to such awe-inspiring sights, just as pictures of mountains or sunsets never capture the beauty of being there.

Resuming normal life, I was pleased that I had spent the effort and a bit of money to make the sight happen. It was a FIRST for me. It might be a last. Either way, it was worth it.

I got thinking about such FIRSTS soon after when I was adding a celebratory restaurant reservation to my calendar. I always note when it’s the first visit at a particular restaurant. It got me pondering about FIRSTS in our lives, especially as we age. Do we acknowledge FIRSTS? Is the concept special or just hype? Any ROI? Does a FIRST offer benefits? Is it worth the extra mile(s)?

Rut vs. Routine

“Rut” connotes doing the same thing over and over – a way to criticize inertia. The word is dedicated to the negative. While “routine” similarly describes those repeated activities, it can be positive or negative. Routine can be virtuous in our daily schedules. It’s rather comforting. Although not always. Generally, we can distinguish between quality routines and “stuck in a rut.”

Adding more FIRSTS in our days might mix things up a bit – create interest, growth or adventure. I wanted to read what others had speculated on the subject. After searching a bit, I realized that there wasn’t much. Thinking it over, I concluded that there are clearly different kinds of “FIRSTS.” Moreover, each of us has our own reasons to be attracted to certain ‘break out’ ideas.

3 categories of FIRST(S)

 

 

 

 

 

No matter what we choose, or what category it fits into, I will argue that we get something out of it. Even if just a good yarn about one’s first eclipse.

Conversely, stagnation can dominate our conscious hours, allowing us to wallow in the rut. FIRSTS on your bucket list will never be completed that way. Following through with non-typical activities – even if only small or temporary – disrupts our old habits. You may have your own ‘itching-to-do’ list jotted down, with little check boxes next to each entry.  Or you may roll your eyes just considering it. Still, a bucket list is a useful process in accomplishing major, fun or even silly goals, like one I saw aiming to ‘pee in every ocean.’  If you want a starting point for a specific entry, check my post entitled ‘Bucket-List Addition – Backyard Birding Literacy’ (May 1, 2016). For numerous other suggestions look at “50 things You Must Experience At Least Once After 50 (If you Haven’t Already)” from Huffington Post (September 2013). Admittedly, I don’t appreciate all their submissions, but that demonstrates why we each need to fill our own buckets. An activity I covet as a FIRST may be an unpalatable LAST for you.

One-time Experiences

Just try new things.
Don’t be afraid.
Step out of your comfort zones and soar…

— Michelle Obama

Besides accomplishing an instant check mark on the life-list, the greatest thing about a 1x experience is that it doesn’t require commitment. If bucket list entries are clearly fun, and you can’t get them off your mind or out of your hair, well….. wash-rinse-repeat. Yet, you need not continue to have succeeded. You fulfilled what you set out to do.

Neither do the ‘one-timers’ need to spark dread, like bungee jumping, public speaking to 500 or cruising down the Amazon. Overcoming fear can be refreshing, but it isn’t a mandatory component. Thinking ‘small’ is fine.

Certainly, I don’t have each and every new restaurant on my bucket list, but I still enjoy the new settings. It counts. Simplicity can still sizzle.

Simple examples might include:

  • Cook a new recipe with a heretofore-unknown ingredient.
  • Choose a different genre of movie to watch.
  • Go out to the local bar for a beer at 10:00 pm when no one you know is even awake.
  • Read the NYTimes cover-to-cover (want ads and obits included).
  • Knock on a neighbor’s door with only a lame excuse to say hello (maybe some homemade cookies in hand).
  • Put your next idea here….

One-timers can be infinitely more complex however. In 2004, Dorothy Davenhill Hirsch aged 89 recorded a significant FIRST. Dorothy, an active community resident in Oregon, made the Guinness Book of Records by being the oldest person to ever visit the North Pole, an area with temperatures plummeting as low as -45 Fahrenheit. Not merely a visit, but one aboard the Yamal, a Russian Nuclear Ice Breaker. I would assume that the reservations were a bit complex for the one-time arrangement. On her 100th birthday in 2005, Bertha Wood published her FIRST (and only) book, Fresh Air and Fun. A story about the Blackpool Holiday Camp in England, it took Bertha 10 years to prepare it as her one-time memoir.

Ask yourself this. What would I find FUN enough to try just once?

Ongoing New Activity

I like to challenge myself.
I like to learn – so I like to try new things and try to keep growing.
………………………………………………………— David Schwimmer (Friends TV show)

Maybe we could summarize this category as ‘try a new hobby.’ The classification constitutes more of the lifelong learning and educational aspects of FIRSTS.

  • Learn Spanish.
  • Join a politically active organization.
  • Take an American History class.
  • Volunteer to plant trees.
  • Sign up to tutor adults in reading.
  • Commit to mentoring a young professional.
  • Develop a new process for better service at the local food bank.

Think you are too old for any new tricks? Not so. Check out (or review anew): The Question should be HOW do we Teach an Old Dog New Tricks? (April 2016) The other, perhaps more relevant, question might be ‘what would I find rewarding enough to bother learning?’

Not only does literature claim that these growth activities increase confidence and self-esteem but often tend to encompass socialization aspects, reducing loneliness and even boredom. They demand more commitment than ‘one-timers’ but focusing on the activity’s enjoyment inspires sticktoitness.

Surprisingly, commitment can often out-shine the skill. As an example, read about a women who simply sat in one place (with one important message) for a long while, see ‘Do we still Make a Difference after a Certain Age?’ (March 2016). For one of my favorite examples, I turn to the US Northeast, where Anna Mary Robertson Moses, more lovingly-known by her nickname Grandma Moses, began her “professional painting career” at age 78. As encouragement to us all, and in the no-nonsense simplicity of rural New England, she proclaimed “life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

Raising your Own Bar

I see retirement as just another of these reinventions,
another chance to do new things and be a new version of myself.

— Walt Mossberg,
                                                          American Journalist, formerly with Wall St. Journal

Building on strengths and past successes can lead you to FIRSTS in your field of interest. Still, perhaps worthless if we ignore the “fun” portion. Just because we ‘can’ doesn’t mean we ‘should.’ After 50, if we take on a new effort or second career, we can only hope that enjoyment is part of the package. If needed, continuation can lead to a kind of golden parachute of pennies for the common man.

Not all of us have exciting or noteworthy skills to expand upon. Or at least we refuse to define them as such. Drawing on examples that were exceptional helps us envision what raising the bar can mean.

  • Jessica Tandy (at age 80) and Christopher Plummer (age 82) were the oldest female and male Oscar winners. They won their FIRST Oscars (her for Driving Miss Daisy – 1989; him for Beginners – 2012) after long years in theater and film.
  • After running her FIRST marathon at age 86, Gladys Burrill (nicknamed “Gladyator”) went on to be the oldest woman to complete a marathon, finishing the Honolulu Marathon at 92 years old.
  • Japanese mountaineer, Yuichiro Miura, at the age of 80, was the oldest person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He did so after heart surgery. Miura had climbed Everest at age 70 and 75. He was raising his own bar, clearly not a one-time experimenter. Comforting to hear that after his last climb he chirped, “I think 3 times is enough.”

The ‘Raising Your Bar’ category isn’t for everyone. If you have no unfinished drive, or missing joy from previous work/activity, why go further? Still, you might consider a previous path, but with a sharp U-turn that diverts you toward a preferred direction.

 

Final Thought

I am of the opinion that getting into the habit of trying new things is not a boondoggle or bothersome. The different behaviors have significant benefits: brain challenges, improved socialization, simple fun or joy and fulfillment. Like an eclipse viewing, FIRSTS can be awesome. And since sometimes you just can’t improve upon the words of another to explain the worthiness of your point, let me quote the sentiment of US Supreme Court justice in the 1930s, Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr:

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience
can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Title Picture – Image compilation. Explanation from NASA website:

A ground-based image of the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017 (gray, middle ring), is superimposed over an image of the Sun’s atmosphere, called the corona (red, outermost ring), as seen by ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which watches the Sun from space. At center is an image of the sun’s surface as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of light.

Credits: Innermost image: NASA/SDO
Ground-based eclipse image: Jay Pasachoff, Ron Dantowitz, Christian Lockwood and the Williams College Eclipse Expedition/NSF/National Geographic
Outer image: ESA/NASA/SOHO

Picture Two. Eclipse with Bailey’s Beads credit: NASA Photo / Carla Thomas

Reference: NASA’s 2017 Solar Eclipse information site is here.

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3 thoughts on “Putting More FIRST(s) in Life. Boondoggle or Benefit?

  1. It is so helpful to reflect on “Firsts “. I realized I need to put more “fun” in choosing “firsts”. Thank you for your work. Or maybe it’s your fun because the result is so fruitful.

  2. Thanks drB! I’d been thinking along these lines lately, and appreciate your analysis. I was wondering if pursuing “Firsts”/new experiences was essential to living a happy life as we age. I think so. But for those of us who like to pursue geographical firsts, the prospect of running out of territory is concerning. I like your 3 Categories. Good thinking. Those and your links give us many more ideas for Firsts…

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