21) Learn Sign Language

According to Wikipedia, with 955 million native speakers, comprising more than 14 percent of the world population, Mandarin is the most commonly used language in the world. The second and third most popular are Spanish and English, though each has considerably fewer speakers with 405 and 360 million respectively.

But American Sign Language (ASL)? It doesn’t even crack the top 100 most frequently used languages. And, depending on which site is the most believable, only anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people worldwide—or, as it is, just in the United States and Canada—use the language. It makes sense, as it is used predominately by deaf native signers, hearing children of deaf parents, and adult deaf signers who have learned ASL from other adult deaf individuals. And, apparently, some random person who thought it’d be interesting to learn. That person being, of course, me.

While it would have been more practical to learn Mandarin, Hindi or Arabic (the fourth and fifth most widely spoken languages after Spanish and English), or perfected my very minimal Spanish—despite having studied it for a year in middle school, and then two years in both high school and college—I thought learning sign language would be more fun.

I have known one deaf person, and it was a boy in my middle school homeroom class. I therefore have been around ASL users (my peer and his translator), but it was ages ago. Before embarking on accomplishing this goal, I had a very basic grasp of the language, as in I could sign the letters of the alphabet, and “poop.” Because what middle school kid doesn’t learn “poop” in at least one additional language to his or her native one?

I found a brilliant website, www.lifeprint.comwhich I used as my teacher. I broke the big goal of learning more than the alphabet into a smaller goal of learning at least five signs a day for one month. I had already realized that I could stick to monthly goals, like practicing spirituality for one month, and not saying anything negative about anyone for one month. Each day I planned to review the signs I had learned previously and add five new signs. What I quickly realized was that learning ASL was fun, and unique, and I often learned more than five signs a day. At the end of the month, I kept learning, and now have in my repertoire more than three hundred signs.

While I initially thought it was kind of a silly goal, because I was fairly certain I wouldn’t ever really use it all that much, I recently learned how handy it is for SCUBA diving. Diving has its own set of hand signals and signs, but some of them are similar to ASL signs, and having a decent grasp on ASL made learning the new signs easy. Also, even if other people don’t know ASL, I can use the signs with them because many can be intuitive, or somewhat easy to figure out based on the setting and context of the conversation or situation.

Though I feel I can get by with the little sign language I know, I hope to continue learning more signs. Perhaps one day, on the very rare and random occurrence that I come into contact with an actual deaf person, we might be able to communicate. 

18) Get Properly Fitted for a Bra

According to a few articles on the internet, like this one at Nordstrom.com, which also has a measuring guide, roughly eighty percent of women in the United States wear the wrong size bra. Considering a bra is an article of clothing most women don for several hours or more every day, most days of the year, wearing one that doesn’t fit seems pretty silly. It’s also a bit unsettling to think that the majority of breasts are not being given proper care.

I had originally specified getting fit at Victoria’s Secret because, with my minimal knowledge about bras, I figured that was the best place to do it. However, after reading a few too many blog posts denouncing the quality of bra fittings at the well-known lingerie company, and after coming across a few articles highlighting the services rendered at department stores, I decided to go to Nordstrom to find out what size bra I actually should be wearing.

While I’ve happily jumped out of an airplane with a guy named Mutley strapped to my back and a parachute on his, and I’ve cheerfully watched great white sharks swimming to and fro, where the only thing separating us was a cage with metal bars, and even backpacking to a campsite and spending the night alone in the wilderness proved to be tremendously more fun than scary, I was not looking forward to having a woman take measurements of my chest and bring me various bras to try on. Though I don’t flit around locker rooms buck naked, my apprehension wasn’t because I would be taking my shirt and bra off in front of another woman. What I was terrified about was admitting that I was nearly thirty and had never been fit for a bra, and that I didn’t really know all that much about bras or how they should fit.

In my defense, I’ve been a late bloomer—in a lot of regards. I didn’t emerge into the world until three weeks after my scheduled date of birth, I didn’t talk until I was two, and let’s just say I joked well into my college years that I (still) had the physique of a twelve-year-old boy. Though my friends often teased me for having a small chest, I had never had any issues with my lack of lady lumps. In fact, I reveled in spending less on running clothes because the built-in bras in some tank tops were sufficient enough, and I didn’t need to purchase expensive sports bras. I was also able to wear many a dress without worrying about visible bra straps, as I just went without.

Even still, I felt uncomfortable walking up to the counter, asking to be fitted for a bra, and then, once we were in the relative safety of the dressing room, admitting I had never before been fitted. It was even worse when I told her I wasn’t really sure what size I wore, and when I removed my shirt and bra, and felt sweat cascade down my back as if I had just completed thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer, I wanted to sprint to the car faster than Usain Bolt blazed his way to victory in the 2014 Olympic 100 meter dash. Luckily, the bra fitter, whose name I will change to Lucy, was wonderful, kind, patient and, best of all, apparently not deterred by my surely off-putting perspiration. She assured me that I shouldn’t feel bad because most women don’t know their real size, nor do they bother to get properly fitted. Furthermore, she seemed confident she would be able to help me get the perfect bra.

Using a white measuring tape, Lucy took a few measurements around my chest, and under and across my breasts. To my surprise, the band size she told me was one size smaller than I had ever worn. I was pretty sure my breasts had grown in recent months, so if anything I would need to increase in band size, not decrease. To my even greater surprise, the cup size she told me was appropriate for my girls was three sizes larger than I had ever worn, or had remotely considered wearing in my weirdest dreams. Lucy explained that most women do not wear a band tight enough to give proper support, and then they try to adjust the straps to make it work. I thought about the numerous bras I had worn where it seemed like every day I had to readjust the straps to make them fit. She then enlightened me about cup size, and that a decrease in band size meant an increase in cup size. Going down one band size would explain going up one cup size, but I had gone up three. I guess I just didn’t know how bras were supposed to fit.

After trying on a number of bras in various styles and by different designers, I selected two. I thought they seemed too tight at the time, but she said they would stretch and that I just hadn’t been used to wearing that size. When I got home, I wore each for about twenty minutes, and realized that they were indeed too tight—uncomfortably so, and to the point that I would not be able to wear them all day like I knew I would need to. Though the two I bought would not be my new greatest bras, or even in my drawer among the ill-fitting collection I had amassed over the years, I did learn more about my body, bras and bra sizes in general, and that I would just have to keep trying if I wanted to move into the small percentage of women who wear the correct bra size.

29) Do a Random Act of Kindness

When I created the goal of spending a night alone in the wilderness, I knew I would be able to plan for it, and I knew it would be obvious when I had accomplished it. I only had to work up the courage to execute it, and maybe learn how to build a fire beforehand. (I did not do the latter, but fortunately I figured out the technique when I was out there—or at least lucked into getting a blaze going).

Likewise, going one month without Facebook, serving at a food kitchen, and driving to Mexico were all easily-definable goals, and I could specifically ascertain when each had been achieved.

How, though, could I make it a goal to do something random? By making it a goal—at least the way I make goals, which is to devise a plan to properly execute and achieve them—doesn’t that remove the element of randomness? Furthermore, I (now) believe doing a random act of kindness shouldn’t even be a goal on a list as much as it should simply be a common thing people do in their daily lives.

And yet, I had made it a goal. I obviously felt I had been lacking in doing kind things on a whim, which, in my opinion, does not include tasks I believe should be automatic like holding doors open for others. I had to clearly make it a goal to do something I should have been doing for years. I have learned a great deal since I started this project nearly a year ago, evidenced in part in the letter I wrote to my future self, and doing nice things just to be nice was one of them. Though I may be somewhat dismayed that it took me nearly thirty years to figure it out, to use a trite saying: better late than never.

My random act of kindness itself is hardly worth mentioning, as my intentions for creating the goal were not so I could then relate what generosity and kindness I bestowed on an unsuspecting person, but I will say that I accomplished it. And I was surprised when it occurred, which I suppose is exactly what I was going for. I hope to perform many more random acts of kindness in the coming years, and months, and days, and continue to be pleasantly surprised by achieving things for which I did not plan.

*For those curious readers, I will divulge that the act involved pro bono freelance work.

22) One Month without Saying a Negative Thing About Anyone

If I learned one thing from watching Bambi, it’s that Walt Disney and company were quite content with teaching little kids the awful truth that sometimes you can lose your mother unexpectedly and at a very young age. If there are two things I learned from that much-beloved childhood film, the second is, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” For those who may have forgotten, this is said by the little rabbit Thumper, who, after announcing that Bambi doesn’t walk very well, is reminded by his mother of his father’s advice to be nice.

Though I’m not sure I need to be reminded too often of the first lesson, I definitely could and should heed Thumper’s father’s advice much more frequently than I do. I don’t consider myself negative, whiny or gossipy, but throughout my nearly thirty years I have spewed more negativity than I’d like to admit.

I am not a religious person, as evidenced in my post about practicing spirituality for one month, so the main ideology I try to live by is that of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. While I hardly live a life void of speaking ill of others, I do try to be conscious of it and keep such comments to a minimum. Selfishly, perhaps, I just wouldn’t want people saying mean things about me.

That philosophy, however, has not kept the negative self-talk to a minimum. I have always been my biggest critic, and seemingly have no issue saying negative things about myself. I am fine standing in front of the mirror and stating every perceived flaw and thing here or there that could be improved. If I’m watching Jeopardy!, and I miss a question to which I know the answer, I readily put the heel of my palm to my forehead and make a sound akin to Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” Come to think of it, I often have no trouble unleashing a litany of similar gestures and sounds on the innocent game show contestants themselves—primarily during Wheel of Fortune—if the answer is so painfully obvious to me, but so completely lost on them. (I understand that, in addition to my goal of playing Bingo at a Bingo Hall, this offers more evidence of my fondness for “grandma”-like activities).

I wanted to see if I could make it one month without uttering such off-putting talk—to and about others (even if my voice doesn’t penetrate through TVs), and to and about myself. I knew it would be a challenge I would need to focus on intently and intensely, considering I had formed the unpleasant habit decades ago.

To achieve success, I decided to avoid using gimmicks, or multi-step plans, or rubber bands I’d snap on my wrist every time I reverted to my old ways–not that those ways of quitting bad habits don’t work for a lot of people. For me, though, I knew that focus and willpower would be the only way to go. I would just quit it.

And, essentially, I did just that, which makes it sound considerably easier than it was. In part, I simply talked less—which is difficult in its own right because I am a talker. But I focused, with every ounce of my mind, on not saying anything mean or nasty or whiny, and instead sought the positive in everyone, and everything, and talked only of that. When this proved difficult, I resorted to Thumper’s dad’s advice and just kept my mouth shut. I let my thoughts go to battle on my mouth’s behalf, and that seemed to work out for the most part.

I’ll admit that I sometimes came up with ways to make a certain negative thought or feeling known, without actually saying it, which I chalked up to being crafty rather than a broken streak of no negative talk.

For example, if someone swerved right in front of me on the highway without using his turn signal, I might have said something like, “Gosh, I’m so appreciative of all the drivers in the world who use their turn signal when they rapidly switch lanes and are nearly touching bumpers with the car behind them,” and then of course think, Even if I’m not experiencing any of those drivers here!

Or, perhaps, if a Wheel of Fortune puzzle was missing only one letter, say, the “x” in the word “experience,” I might say to the contestant, “Oh, my gosh! You are a mor….ally decent person, no doubt, because surely they don’t let immoral people on the show.”

Like I said, I found ways around saying negative things. But, for the most part, I practiced using the filter in my brain that sometimes—and sometimes rarely—keeps thoughts from finding their way to and out of my mouth. I also realized that the less I said negative things, the less I thought them. It was somewhat of a self-fulfilling cycle that was beneficial to others and to myself.

Disney and the gang may have had a few, I’ll say interesting, ideas about what people should be made aware of at a young age, but teaching them, albeit via a talking rabbit, to withhold negative thoughts rather than unleashing them on people, or animals, was certainly not a bad one.

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.