Friday, November 5, 2010

21 things to do before you're 21

In just 3 days, I'll be 100% legal. (Except for renting cars... why do you have to be 25 to do that??) But just for this conversation, let's call it 100% legal, & therefore a major, milestone, "I'm a grown-up" birthday.

When we were in high school, my great friend Erika & I read Seventeen magazine faithfully. We'd go through each page of each issue, laughing about it, analyzing it & critiquing it. In those days, the then-editor-in-chief Atoosa, created a reality TV show called Miss Seventeen, & the girl who finally won was a gorgeous 21-year-old blonde named Jennifer.

Image courtesy of Sammi

In honor of her title, Jennifer was granted a few spreads in the magazine, including one called "21 Things to Do Before You're 21." I was so inspired by it that I actually tore it out & still have it. I've referred to it frequently & proudly checked off experiences. Using Jennifer's list & reflecting on my own experiences that have been valuable in helping me become this adult, here are 21 things I'm so glad I did before I turned 21:

1. Learn to drive a stick shift. When I was 17 my dad taught me to drive a manual transmission. It took me several weeks before I could drive it at all, but now it's something I really enjoy. The sense of control is empowering, thrilling & satisfying. Also, it's a good skill to have. You never know when you'll need to use it.

2. vote. It's one of our most basic rights & the clearest way to exercise democracy. It's respectful to our fellow citizens, our military, our politicians & our sister suffragettes! (As a woman, I'm most personally attached to the 19th Amendment. Here's to you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony & Carrie Chapman Catt!)

Also, of course, Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. There were English suffragettes, too!

Photo Courtesy of Michal at Audiencing

3. Organize a surprise party. Last year, I threw my parents a 25th Anniversary surprise party. With the help of some very good & very helpful friends who brought together the food, created a decoy activity for my parents & housed me for one clandestine night (among other innumerable things) I successfully brought together 50 of their friends & my parents were completely surprised! Keeping a fantastic secret from people you love is just about as giggle-inducing as anything. Try it.

4. Leave a play at intermission. Only for a good reason of course, like you're not enjoying it or you're completely exhausted. This was an interesting exercise this summer for someone like myself who doesn't like to leave things incomplete. But earlier this year, when a wordy English play was getting the better of me & my family & friends, we ducked out and went to a pleasant restaurant patio, where we talked & laughed for hours & had a more delightful time than we did the entire first act. There was no point sticking around when we literally had no idea what was going on. "Life's too short," Vicki said, and I was sold. Red Geranium, here we come. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how quickly I let go of that incomplete plot.

5. Travel outside your home country. Thanks to my parents, I started what has already been a long career as an international traveler when I was 10. International travel makes me a more valuable world citizen because I learn to think beyond my bubble. Actually, more accurately, I simply expand my bubble.
Plus, it's fun.

Me and Auntie Michele lounging in Venice, 2002

6. Also, travel alone. When I was 18, I went to Europe for a month by myself. Partly because I spent so much time literally alone & partly because even when I was with friends they were frequently speaking German or Dutch, I spent a lot of time in introspection, reaching a new level of adulthood in a very quiet but very meaningful way. My three days in Paris were particularly important. With no one to report to, I spent some of the slowest, most contemplative days of my life, literally winding through the streets by foot with only the vaguest ideas of where I was headed.
It's not about where I was. It was about being alone, not reporting to anyone, but exploring and learning.

Me on the beach at the Hague in southern Holland, 2008

7. Let go of something you thought you couldn't let go of. This past summer, I went through all my school papers since elementary school. I kept the most special ones, but the rest I recycled. It was liberating! I realized that if I don't have every graded paper from 2nd grade, life goes on, & I feel a little less stressed when there's less stuff in my room! Next step: My formal dresses from high school. Let's not even go there for now...

8. Write a letter. A real letter, like in the old days. It's so much cooler than emailing & means much more. It requires assembling tools, thinking slowly & even paying 44 extra cents to get it into the mailbox. I love opening my mailbox to see something real & personal with my name on it & sharing love with paper.

9. Lose someone you love. The pain is unimaginable. The loss feels too great, and, in the thick of the grief, I've wondered if I will just live the rest of my life feeling like that, because living & not feeling that pain seems impossible. But somehow, after days & weeks, I come out the other side. Do do I gain that strength or do I discover it? Does it matter? That strength is there to be used. That strength is there for when I need to be the adult, & I need to support someone else who is feeling that kind of pain. 

my friend Wesley
Grandpa Edsel
Photo courtesy of Daniel Knight at Studio B Photography

10. Play a team sport. High-school cross country was my first memorable sports experience with a real level of commitment. The practices were painful, grueling & sweaty, & the teenage girls created more locker-room drama than I care to recall. After listening to me complain for a few weeks, my dad told me to decide to either quit the team or stop bitching. I stopped bitching & saw the season out. Even though I switched high schools the next year & haven't been on a team since, the experience was invaluable. No matter how much we worked against each other socially, when we were on the course, we were, literally & figuratively, on the same team. Sharing the pain & the glory is part of committing oneself to others— always a good dynamic to understand.

11. Read a classic. Like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. (One of my favorites. Along with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. & Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. & Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.) Figure out what all the hype is about. I love reading a classic & finally understanding why everyone has talked about this particular book for decades. Special thanks to Julia Gregg for guiding me through literary analysis for 2 whole years in high school. This woman herself is a literary mastermind.

Image courtesy of Abhinav at Serendipity.

12. Stay up until the sun comes up. In the name of fun. June 2005, just north of Madrid, Spain, at a wedding, a few friends & I decided we were not going to sleep that night. In the early morning hours our laughs became quieter & quieter as we all sat on couches in the lobby of the hotel, nodding off but resisting sleep, the adrenaline of the night seeming to nosedive. I was just considering throwing the towel in & closing my eyes when I looked out the East-facing windows and saw a strip of pink along the horizon. It was satisfying. & fun.

13. Work hard, make your own money, save it. In this economy, the mentality of working opens doors. & learning where money comes from is a huge step toward independence.

14. Get a piercing somewhere other than your ears. I've had my nose pierced & my navel pierced. Not very exotic, but it makes me feel cool. It's another story to tell, & the delightful thing about piercings is that as long as the parlor is clean & the needles are new, it's fairly low-commitment, unlike with tattoos.

15. Cook something all by yourself. Augusta is a great cook. Not only is she great, but she actually cooks several times a week. I don't cook much now, but back in high school I cooked a bit. I even learned to make pad Thai. It was gorgeous & delicious & I was so proud! It's nice to know I can take care of myself.

I made this pad Thai!

16. See fine art first-handStanding in front of Renior's own brush strokes or Michelangelo's own carving allows me to have a relationship with art that I simply can't have when I just see the work printed on a page. There's a line in Vicky Cristina Barcelona where Juan Antonio tells Cristina & Vicky that he goes to Oviedo to see a sculpture that he finds very moving. The way he delivers the line, it's as though he must go; it's a supplement for his soul.

17. Take a train journey. Taking a train through America is a particularly great opportunity because our country is so expansive & when you're on a train, you're at the mercy of someone else's directions. I've taken Amtrak's route through West Virginia twice now, & while I never would have taken that route in a car, I'm so glad I've had the opportunity to see it because West Virginia is just that beautiful.

18. Get a major haircut. I spent my first 17 years with some pretty blah haircuts. Finally, I allowed my über-creative & über-talented stylist Jaima McReynolds (who now works in Nashville, TN) to cut me a dramatic shag. I've since grown that out, but my current cut feels way more updated than just stringy long hair. (Stay tuned for more about my current stylist!) 21 is just way too young to be stuck in any kind of rut.

Here's my awesome shag— credits to Jaima McReynolds!

19. Hail a cab. In 2009, Wendy & I were at Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington, D.C. After a small incident involving my inability to hail my own cab, Wendy decided that was unacceptable & taught me how. As we followed Michael Franti & Spearhead around the city (finally ending up at the Peace Ball), I hailed every cab of the night. This is another one of those "never-know-when-you'll-need-it" skills.

20. Swim in the ocean. And I'm not even a beach person. It's just an incredible feeling, to let yourself leave the shore & be a part of the sea. My favorite beach in the world? Cinque Terre in Italy.

21. Dream a dream. Discover something you want. Then cleverly, fearlessly, unwaveringly & shamelessly pursue it. I have a friend who's a life coach, and she's preparing to publish a book called Create Your Own Luck (by Susan Hyatt). In the first chapter, she suggests the reader assess her own "luck factor" by ranking whether a series of statements apply to her "always," "usually," "sometimes," "rarely" or "never." What's statement number one? "I am genuinely excited about my future." For me, being genuinely excited about my future comes from creating my future. I circled "always."


  1. I am proud to say that I've only not accomplished 3 things on this list, and I still have over 9 months to get them done! However, I don't think I'll go for another piercing... I don't usually wear earrings in my ears that are already pierced, so there's no sense in piercing something else. I just need to learn to drive a stick shift and hail a cab. :)

  2. Also, I'd like to say that I love reading your blog. :)

  3. Hey, this is your roomie :) Just wanted you to know that I loved this post. You have done so much with your life already, and I know it will only get better and more exciting! And thanks for the nod to my cooking skills haha.

    Je t'aime :)

  4. I think this list is in no way definitive. Where's "Get your heart broken," for example? Or, "Make a huge mistake you never want to talk about again?" Not to be a Debbie Downer...but I've gotten cynical in my old age I suppose, lol. Maybe, "Go to a metal show and a folk festival in the same summer," or "Otherwise put yourself wildly outside of your boundaries." What other life experiences have you had that are Not on this list? Substitutions, as it were? A tattoo instead of a navel piercing. Bikini waxes. Attend a burlesque show. ;-) Instead of spending $1,000 on a plane ticket to a foreign country, how about live in a cabin in the woods for a month? Or visit an American culture different from yours? (Deep South, Old New England)?

    Anyway. :-) Just thinking. What would YOUR "21 Things to Do Before 21" List be for someone who's 17??

  5. @ Sara: Go you!! I'm so happy you're reading my blog & enjoying it. It's giving me warm fuzzies. =) Also, good to see you the other day!!

    @ Augusta: thank you! thank you thank you. je 'taime ;)

    @ Liz: Indeed, there are plenty of things not on this list!! Burlesque show, for sure... As well as interview a burlesque performer... You've given me some ideas to put on my 30 things to do before I'm 30 list! A list for anyone would be more based on conceptual experiences rather than specific experiences, like your "put yourself wildly outside your boundaries."
    & I'm sooo excited to see you for Thanksgiving!