6) Write a Personal Letter to be Read at Age Fifty

As I’ve learned this past year, more than in any other of my past nearly-thirty, life sure can change, even if you thought you had a course plotted out, or at least a very good idea of a course. Things you thought you knew for certain can change dramatically, and you can find yourself in places, with people, doing jobs you may never have envisioned. I guess what they say about the only certainties in life being death and taxes is true–though I suppose you can avoid the latter if you take yourself off the grid and live in a cave. But if you’ve seen The Croods, that idea didn’t work out too well for Grug and his family, as they still couldn’t escape the inevitably of change. I guess what I’m saying is that life throws curve balls, and even living in a cave won’t keep you from them.

Earlier this year I wrote a letter to my ten-year-old self, partly as preparation for this goal, but also because it seemed like a cathartic self-reflective activity. The intention wasn’t to write a list of regrets, but to accept and understand what I’ve learned about myself based on choices I’ve made. Although I enjoyed writing to my younger self, I don’t know that I would truly want that version of me to have known what I know now. Sure, what they say about hindsight is true, but who learns or grows out of perfection?

I didn’t foresee many of the changes that have occurred in the past ten months alone, and if I had written a letter to my thirty-year-old self at the beginning of this 30×30 experiment, I would surely read it in eight weeks and laugh. There is no way to predict, or at this point even take a wild stab at, what will happen in the next twenty years, but I know what I’ve learned so far, and I know what I hope those years will entail. I look forward to reading the following letter (only bits of which are included) to see how much more I will have grown, and to see how many curve balls came my way and what I was able to do with them.

Dear fifty-year-old me,

Happy birthday! Can you believe you are fifty! I can’t! Surely you remember those cards you used to send your family members when you were a kid espousing your incredulity at the fact that each relative was, indeed, that old?. And now you are that old. Or, rather, that young. Despite the trepidation you felt about turning the big three-zero, you have always known that age is just a number; how you feel is what’s most important.

So, here you are, celebrating fifty years of life. And not just life; living. Some of that time was tough, and frustrating, and full of anxiety and apprehension. Some of that time you felt unsure about everything, and that your life had been completely turned upside down and you were rapidly barrel-rolling towards the edge of a cliff.

But you had felt consternation before, like in middle school when you had to select the right color of bands for your braces so it wouldn’t look like you had food stuck in your teeth, or when you had to choose the perfect Halloween outfit that would be fun and unique, yet also keep you warm in that chilly Alaskan weather. As you came to find out, you’d get food stuck in your braces no matter what color the bands were, and the homemade bear costume–accompanied with a mask that looked like a rat’s face–was certainly unique, though maybe not quite in the way you had hoped.

With each difficult time, you were able to find a solution and move on. Sure, maybe what you settled on at the time wasn’t always the best choice, and maybe sometimes it was a downright bad decision, but everything worked out okay and led you to where you are now.

There is no such thing as perfection. It is human to be fallible. No matter how hard you try to make your life perfect, there will always be flaws. Be true to yourself, be kind to others, and be as good of a steward to your environment as you can be. Be grateful for the rough patches, for that’s when you were able to learn and grow more than you thought was possible, and be grateful for your experiences.

You have experienced love, of the deepest, most unconditional, and most forgiving kind, which has shown you that there are people who know you inside and out, and know of your imperfections, and still think the world of you. I hope by now you love yourself as much.

You have experienced heart-rending loss, which has helped you appreciate those you love much more than if you had never felt the pain and anguish of losing people you care about. Loss has also further impressed in your mind how precious and short life is, and that it’s important to express your love and gratitude for people as often as possible.

You have experienced the creation of life-long friendships. The kind where you can go a decade without seeing each other, but the second you meet again, everything is exactly as it always had been. Sure, you have a few more wrinkles, and you desire just a glass or two of wine with dinner—rather than gulping down “duck farts” and other now-horrible-sounding mixes of alcohol out of shot glasses glued to a ski just to get drunk—but you still laugh at the same jokes, talk endlessly about everything under the African night sky, and belt out songs from The Lion King while driving through the savanna on search for wildlife. And yes, just like you did at twenty-seven, at fifty years of age you know that singing is probably the worst way to attract animals, but you’ll continue to do it because it’s fun.

Although your list of must-sees and must-dos will likely—hopefully—be never-ending, you have seen and done more things than many people dream of.

You have traveled across the the world.

You have watched a leopard stalk two impala in the wilds of Kruger National Park, you have watched hyenas pace hungrily while your stew cooked over the campfire and all that separated you from them was a fence, you have watched two behemoth rhinos stroll across the road right in front of your car, you have watched a baby elephant walk so closely behind its mom that surely its trunk was glued to her bum, and you have looked into the black eyes of a great white shark as it rammed the cage you were in that dangled over the side of a boat in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

You have SCUBA dived the Great Barrier Reef, bungee jumped in Thailand, sky dived in Australia, crawled through a cave in Colombia, wire base-jumped in New Zealand, rappelled off Table Mountain in South Africa, and zip-lined through the jungles of Costa Rica—shortly before a sloth inched its way along the line before alighting in the trees.

You have also set many goals in your life. Some you have far surpassed, and others you have not achieved, which is okay. If you easily accomplish every goal you set, you are not reaching high enough, nor are you giving yourself the opportunity to grow. The moment you stop striving to acquire new knowledge and new skills, or create music and stories–two things you love–your life will become dull. You know a little about what that’s like, and you know it’s not how you want to live. Always aspire to learn more, do more, and be more than you think is possible. Continue to learn from your failings and be grateful for your accomplishments.

Remember when you went one month without saying anything negative about anyone, including yourself? It worked wonders for your outlook on humanity, and self-esteem. You’ve always been great at finding the silver lining in things and putting a positive spin on things that can seem bleak, and you should continue to do it as often as necessary.

Remember when you meditated for thirty minutes a day for a month? You weren’t always able to completely quiet your mind and focus solely on your breathing, but it helped you find an inner calm and peace. Give it another shot in times of stress, which will surely arise again.

Remember when you were a kid how often you laughed so much and so hard that you peed your pants? Of course you do because it comprised a decent amount of your childhood! Always remember those carefree days of your youth, and that it’s okay to be completely and unabashedly out of control sometimes to get the most out of life. You can always buy new britches, but you can never exactly replicate an experience to get more out of it the second time because you held back the first time.

Remember at the age of three when you slipped your feet into your very first pair of ski boots, clicked into your bindings, and schussed down the double black diamond run smoothly and flawlessly? Of course you don’t; it didn’t happen. Do you remember going down your driveway, throwing your skis into a wedge to keep yourself from picking up too much speed, and then somehow doing the splits and a somersault at the same time, resulting in having a yard sale of your ski equipment and clothing? No? You don’t remember that either? You don’t remember it because you got back up, tried again, and fell again. And then you got back up, tried again, and fell again, and again, and again. Until you didn’t fall anymore, and you started to have fun, and you cast aside the number of times you had fallen, the times you had failed. Sure, you fell other times later on, but no one learns how to excel at something and then is perfect at it forever. At one time skiing was such a large part of your life that you were on the mountain from open to close every Saturday and Sunday, Thursday nights, and Monday and Friday afternoons. If there was snow on the mountain but not enough to open the lifts, you were hiking. Before there was any snow at all, you were training on land. You spent so much time loving something you had once failed at repeatedly that you likely still often dream about it.

Don’t let the fear of failing cripple you and leave you in a state of stagnancy. Idleness is not the devil’s playground as much as it is simply boring. You despise boring, so take risks like you did when you were a kid. Who cares if you fall, or screw up, or things don’t work out exactly as you intended or hoped they would? You learn from your mistakes, and anyone who knows an iota about you knows that learning is one of your favorite things to do.

When you get down on yourself for being selfish, think about your capacity to give.

You have walked dogs at a rescue shelter, you have tutored middle school students who weren’t fortunate like you to have parents who helped them with their homework, you have served food to homeless people, and you have routinely donated to organizations that help war veterans, the environment, and orphaned elephants.

No one is perfect, and what a boring world that would be if perfection existed, so continue to think about and exploit your positive traits that others find endearing and valuable, and that you should too. Work on improving those traits you find less than admirable.

Today you are fifty, which means that there is a very good chance you have lived half of your life. It also means, however, that you still have half left. You still have fifty years of exploration, discovery, growth and achievement. Seize every decade, every month, every day and every minute of this time. When you are done reading this, go look in the mirror and tell yourself you’re beautiful—no matter how many wrinkles you see—and then look inside yourself and know that you are beautiful.

Cheers to your first fifty!

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25) Learn a Song on the Guitar

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of music, as documented in part in My Five Favorite Film Scores post. Not only do I love listening to music, I love making it. When I was a kid, my sister and I would create instruments out of empty plastic tubs that once contained jelly, or empty tin cans with an aroma of popcorn still lingering. We would march around the living room banging on our homemade drums—much to the delight of our parents, I’m sure. Then she had a ukulele, I had a master key, and we both had harmonicas. No doubt we continued tormenting our parents with our evening two-man-band concerts.

I've enjoyed making music since childhood.

I’ve enjoyed making music since childhood.

Finally, my parents bought us a keyboard and put us in piano lessons. I suppose they figured it’d be best if we learned how to properly play a real instrument. Though at times I wanted to do anything besides practice scales, I delighted in recitals our group put on for our parents, especially our quirky take on Jack and the Beanstalk. I also often “treated” my parents to solo concerts, which not infrequently included popular songs I’d “re-written,” or songs I’d simply made up.

While I continued to play piano, I took up the flute in middle school. Like the piano, I enjoyed playing the small silver instrument, and spent a decent amount of time practicing to retain my first or second chair status. During some lunch breaks, I would hang out in the band room and dabble in percussion, learning how to do the paradiddle on a snare drum, and learning enough timpani to play it for one song during a school concert.

In short, I’ve played music since I was a wee lass, and it seemed appropriate to add guitar to my repertoire of instruments. A decade ago I picked up a friend’s Fender and frustratingly stumbled my way through three chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” It had been a finger-hurting experience I was not keen on repeating.

Fast-forward to age twenty-nine, and I figured I ought to give it another go. I sat down with the guitar on my lap, my left fingers holding the neck, the right holding a pick, and my laptop open to a Youtube video about guitar for beginners. Despite suggestions of taking lessons, I had it in my head that it was going to be a frustrating experience I neither wanted to pay for, nor share with someone I didn’t want to be irritated around.

That first day, I took that old six string and played it until my fingers bled. While Bryan Adams surely meant he played for hours on end, my blood starting oozing by about minute three. Fantastic. I was well on my way to another unsuccessful stint at learning guitar. I set the guitar down, glared at it, and waited until the next day to reluctantly pick it back up.

I knew the only way to get through the calloused fingers, let alone achieve my goal of playing a song with chords, was to practice every day, so I did. At first it was ten minutes, then fifteen, then twenty. I mostly just plucked strings at random, though I’ve always had a decent ear for music and have been able to learn songs pretty quickly on my own.

After about a week, when I could successfully pluck my way through my renditions of “Let it Be” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I decided to enlist the help of some guitar players in the Youtube world. I found a couple tutorials for learning chords and got a few, E minor and G, with a moderate amount of effort. Considering many songs can be played with just four chords, I was ecstatic that I was nearly halfway to accomplishing my goal! However, what I didn’t know was that C chord, and then F chord, would be the bane of my guitar-learning experience.

For those who have never tried playing the guitar, let me tell you that the F chord was given the most appropriate letter of all the chords I know, which is admittedly a modest seven, but still, it is apt. I thought the C chord was tough, as even with my gibbon fingers, it’s a stretch. I figured that the F chord, however, may as well F off.

Luckily, the song I chose to learn first—after watching numerous videos for beginning guitar players like myself—contained no F chord. In fact, true to what I had read, it contained just four chords: G, E minor, the once-dreaded C, and D. These four chords can be rearranged to play a number of songs, but in this case, they comprised the notes for “Stand By Me,” one of my favorite songs.

It took a few months of practicing nearly every day to go from whining about calloused fingers and loathing the guitar to playing a song with chords—albeit one with only four chords that merely repeat without adding anything special—but I am happy to cross this one off the list, and be able to type this post with pain-free fingers!

*I thought about adding a video of me playing the song, but it really is just four chords over and over, and doesn’t really sound like the song unless it is accompanied by singing, which even my shower head doesn’t want to hear me do! That being the case, if you watch Rob, the wonderful guitar player from whom I learned this song, you’ll get the gist:

19) Fast

For years I’ve enjoyed reading survival stories. Crazy for the Storm, Unbroken and Touching the Void are just a few of the more powerful, memorable books I’ve read in the past several years. If I were to amend My 5 Favorite Books list, I would add Unbroken to it. Each book details inspirational accounts of men who survived ridiculous, almost impossible, situations, often while starving and being dehydrated. Although I hope to never endure anything close to what these men have, I suppose I was curious to see what it might be like to go one full day, one twenty-four-hour period, without food or water.

While running cross-country and track in college, I became a camel. I didn’t want to be encumbered by a water bottle, or several mini bottles attached to a pack around my waist, and essentially wouldn’t drink during runs that sometimes lasted ninety minutes. In the desert. (I went to school in Reno, Nevada, where the summer heat can be pretty intense, though nothing outrageous enough to make my Most Extreme Weather I’ve Experienced list). I also found out in high school that I was susceptible to getting side aches, and grew accustomed to not drinking anything a few hours before a workout or race.

I hoped I would be able to rely on my learned behavior and discipline to get me through a twenty-four-hour period without water. I figured if I had the lack of water under control, the lack of food wouldn’t even be an issue.

As it turned out, neither was actually all that challenging, but I also didn’t exert a lot of energy during the day—definitely choosing to forego a workout or even do much more than I absolutely had to. I certainly wasn’t dragging myself down out of the frigid Peruvian Andes with a broken leg, a la one of the climbers in Touching the Void, nor was my body being parched by the relentless sun while I floated in a raft in the South Pacific for forty-seven days, a la Louie Zamperini in Unbroken.

I did get a headache in the early evening, and wasn’t able to take an Ibuprofen to relieve it, as I have difficulty swallowing pills even with water, but that was about it. I thought I would become agitated, as I know I have a tendency to get cranky when I’m hungry, but perhaps because I knew I wouldn’t be eating at all, I was okay.

I most certainly wouldn’t want to fast—without food and water—for more than twenty-four hours, and I admire even more those men (and women, though they seem to stay out of those situations more than men in the first place) I have read about, but I’m glad to know I’d be okay for at least one full day if I were stuck without food and water.

10) Serve at a Food Kitchen

I enjoy sleeping in a tent—so much so that I made it a goal to sleep in one completely by myself for a night in the wilderness. I love sleeping in a tent because it means I’m out enjoying nature, but also because it helps me appreciate my cozy bed and home that much more when I return to them after a night or two. Though I try to be grateful for everything I have—which was helped by my month of keeping a gratitude journal—sometimes it’s easy to become complacent and forget that, even during my bad times, I still have a bed on which to sleep, a roof over my head and food in my stomach.

Unfortunately, the same certainly cannot be said by everyone. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the point-in-time count of homeless people in the U.S. in January 2012 was 633,782. It is difficult to ascertain statistics with 100 percent accuracy regarding homeless populations due to the uncertain and inconsistent reality of the problem, but numerous reports and censuses depict Los Angeles as having one of the highest homeless populations in the country. In its 2013 census, Los Angeles County counted 39,463 people sleeping on the street or in homeless shelters. When “at risk of homelessness” and “precariously housed” people were taken into account, the estimated number rose to 57,737. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people are homeless at least one night a year in Los Angeles County.

One of the largest stable homeless populations in the country is in one-square-mile area of downtown Los Angeles called Skid Row. At a given time, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people live on the sidewalks, often in tents or cardboard boxes. It doesn’t take a great imagine to conclude that sleeping in a tent is vastly different when it’s a way of living rather than an escape into nature for a night or two. While I’m trying to decide which restaurant to order delivery from because I’ve been too lazy to go grocery shopping, Skid Row residents are trying to ascertain where their next meal is coming from, though a restaurant of their choosing is certainly not on the list.

I decided to serve at a food kitchen because I wanted to do something for someone else, and appreciate even more how fortunate I have been and am. After a minimal amount of searching online, I came across The Midnight Mission. Conveniently located in Skid Row to help serve the densely populated area, The Midnight Mission has been in operation since 1914 and has functioned entirely free of government assistance. In addition to offering food and shelter to homeless people, the mission provides counseling, recovery programs, education and job placement, which particularly interested me. While offering food and shelter is helpful, I believe it is merely a temporary solution. I believe providing tools like recovery programs for alcoholics and education can potentially help people get back on their feet and have long-term solutions to homelessness.

My fellow volunteers and I were first given a tour of the complex, which included viewing the library, a movie room which converts into a quiet sleep center in the evening, a wonderful gym so residents can keep active, dormitory-style rooms, classrooms complete with computers, the mess room and more. We were then put to work in the kitchen preparing dinner, which consisted of chopping food and pouring milk into cups. After that we were each set up at a station on the food line. I was in charge of handing out chips and bread, while my counterparts spooned beans, rice, stew and yogurt onto the trays.

Over the course of about an hour, we served hundreds of people. Some quietly moved through the line, some said “thank you,” and some made jokes. One person who stood out was the man, appearing to be in his mid-fifties, who stopped in front of me, looked me straight in the eye and told me what a beautiful thing I was doing and what a beautiful person I was. Another memorable encounter was with a tall, young man who had three of the openings on his tray filled with beans. I smiled and said he was going to have a fun night, and he laughed and said he was definitely going to sleep by himself that night.

The kind of tent-sleeping I enjoy.

The kind of tent-sleeping I enjoy.

There were characters and people from various walks of life, and it was a humbling, enjoyable experience. Though the food looked fine—and those who show up on a day when the Dodgers have a baseball game get tasty Dodger dogs—I’m grateful I have the choice of what, when, where and how much I get to eat for dinner, and that the only time I sleep in a tent is when I choose to.