A Year Of Firsts- by Lu Ann Cahn
In her new book, I Dare Me: How I Rebooted and Recharged My Life by Doing Something New Every Day, journalist Lu Ann Cahn recaps the success of her popular blog that chronicled an entire year of "firsts," from Latin dancing on the beach to taking an art class with a nude model. From the funny ("Audition For Roller Derby Day") and the fun ("Taste 18 Flavors of Ice Cream") to the humbly decent ("Pay a Stranger's Bridge Toll") and the deeply moving ("Yoga for Living Beyond Breast Cancer"), Cahn's virgin experiences shake her out of her ennui and help her tap back into a profound passion for living. She talked to The Daily Beast about her favorite firsts and embracing an attitude of carpe diem.
What led you to start this blog and do one thing a day for a year that you'd never done before?
I was completely stuck. I had hit a wall … The economy had tanked, and everything was changing at work. That was happening to a lot of people. My co-workers were leaving, budgets were being cut. But on top of that, for me, there was this whole sea of technology and social media that was being thrown at me and I was being told, ‘You will adapt to this, you will adopt this.’ And I said, ‘No I won’t. I won’t get this at all. I want nothing to do with Tweeting. I don’t get it, I don’t understand why anyone would want to do it.’ I understand it more today and I use it, but at that time [in 2009], I didn’t even understand Facebook. Nor did I understand what a blog was. So I just dug my heels in. I didn’t want to text. I couldn’t figure out the smartphone ... For the first time, I felt old and out of step. But at the same time, I didn’t want to change. And I resented all the change around me.
My daughter, who was 23 at the time, came home from LA for the holiday break. And she looked at me and said, ‘What the heck is going on with you? This is not you. Something is wrong.’ And I said, ‘I’m miserable, I’m stuck, I don’t know what to do.’ She said, ‘You need a creative outlet.’ I’m a reporter, so that just sounded like more work. Why would I want to add more work? I’m already stuck and frustrated, and now you’re telling me I should do something more? … [But] she kept pushing this idea of a blog. And at some point, I finally listened and I said, ‘Ok, ok, maybe I’ll do something new once a week and I’ll write about it.’ She said, ‘That’s kind of a good idea, but what would really be a good idea is to do something new every day.’
Even in my stuck, unhappy mode, my brain latched onto it. I got excited about something and I hadn’t been excited about anything for a long time ... I started with a Polar Bear Plunge, because what could be crazier and more out of your comfort zone than that? And it was perfect, because it was a flying leap to start a year of firsts.
Tell me about the firsts—how did you select them?
Sometimes it was whatever came into my path. I did have a list, but also friends would suggest things. Sometimes things would just happen, like the day that I mucked horse manure. I didn’t have a first that day, and somehow in my travels that day, I ended up in a barn. They were mucking and I asked, ‘What’s mucking? What are you doing?’ And they said, ‘Here, here you go.’ And I thought, 'Well, whatever this is, it’s a first.' And then they said, ‘There’s horse manure in that hay!’ One day I went out and did a primal scream, because I only had a few seconds that day to do something. I had to fit it into my real life. But at some point, I knew it didn’t matter what I did—whatever I did that was new and different added this freshness and excitement to my life, and I was committed to it. And every day I did it, I knew it was opening up my life and I knew I was getting unstuck.
Which first was the hardest to do?
I would say talking to the stranger was one of the hardest ones. It was a friend of mine who dared me to do it. And I thought, ‘That’s not much of a dare, this is going to be easy.’ The dare was to talk to someone as different from myself as possible. When I walked into this park, all of a sudden, I was very intimidated. Because I didn’t have a camera and a microphone with me—it was just me. And to plop yourself down next to a complete stranger and to know your goal is to have a real full conversation—not just a surface ‘hi’—is hard. It was more intimidating than I thought it would be. But once I started ... this guy completely opened up. It was lovely, it was wonderful to connect with him in a way that I never would have imagined, in a way that touched me so much.
Teaching a class was something I always wanted to do—I never stood in front of a tougher audience in my life than 18 grad students. That was extremely challenging but great, because I knew it wasn’t easy, and they were going to have to teach me how to be a good teacher. I also hated the mechanical bull, even though the video is hysterical and makes me laugh every time. But I hated it. While I was on there, I was screaming and I wanted to form words that said ‘Please stop this thing,’ but all that would come out was that scream. That really was the primal scream.
Which one was the most fun?
There were so many fun ones—hula-hooping turned out to be fun, and I still hula-hoop. Things get boring, and I start hula-hooping. I loved zip lining. I loved sampling every flavor in the ice cream store. Although eating desserts all day was one I thought I was going to love, and I hated it. I just felt sick at the end of the day and thought, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ Most of it was fun. Smoking a cigar was fun. I walked into this place—I think it was because these guys were sitting in the back smoking and they just welcomed me into their little circle and taught me how to smoke a cigar. It was kind of sensuous.
Which one do you think about most often now?
The one that’s interesting to me is walking across the Ben Franklin Bridge. Some of the simpler ones stay with me. Someone told me there was a pedestrian walk and I had not known that. It’s a bridge you cross all the time. I was dressed in my work clothes. This cop was on the bridge and he started following me. I was walking across the bridge and the wind was whipping around, it was cold and I was thinking, ‘This is so exhilarating and the view was so incredible. I’ve never seen this view, even though I’ve been over this bridge so many times.’ And realized this cop was following me because he thought I was a jumper. The irony of that just sticks with me. And how little we understand—just the way I approached a stranger and thought he might be homeless, and he was far from homeless. This guy thought I was a jumper. I was far from that. I was happy, so happy with life at that moment. I think one thing the whole experience did was open up my life and allow me to connect with people and talk to people that I never would have met before, and through that my life is so much richer.
There were a few in the appendix that you didn't touch in the book but that were intriguing—like Chatroulette. Or "Help Accused Murderer Turn Himself In." Care to share about those?
Chatroulette was really interesting. When I heard about it, this is 2010, so some of these things were new. I thought, this is great, it’s like having a pen pal around the world, and you get to talk to somebody randomly and how cool is that. I went into it completely naïve. I just had no idea. So all of a sudden, these guys showed up and they would be half-dressed. I thought, ‘What’s going on, that’s so weird.’ And then I realized, “Oh no. Oh no, no, no. They are doing something there. They’re stripping.’ And one guy said, ‘I promise I won’t take my clothes off.’ ...That was one I don’t have to do again.
And for the other one, in the world of reporting, you hear about this happening in a while ... It’s an urban legend, but it had never happened to me. But during my year of firsts, one day, I ended up in this situation where this guy, I think he was charged with murder, but they had accidentally let him out of prison. I ended up with him. His parents wanted him to turn himself in. He had been hiding out with his girlfriend. And they were afraid something would happen to him, so they thought it was a good idea for him to be with me. And that was a first, getting into a car with an accused murderer. I mean, I cover murders. I stick mics in murderers’ faces—but to help somebody turn themselves in was a whole different view. And I don’t know whether he did it or not. But he all of sudden he didn’t seem like a murderer, he seemed like a very young, vulnerable kid who was afraid in the back of this car. This was a different perspective, a different view. And his parents were afraid for him. That was one of the firsts—every so often, I just grabbed one that just happened to me.
Are there any firsts you didn't do but wish you had done?
There’s so many—my friends laugh, but I really want to take a pole dancing class. It looks like an incredible workout and it looks like fun. Now that I’m more comfortable with technology, there are all sorts of new apps. Now I want to try to everything. My next new thing is I’ve got to figure out Instagram. I did my first Power Point the other day. Some of them, they sound common everyday things but things I just haven’t done yet. There’s a whole list. But definitely the pole dancing class will be on my list. I really want to learn Spanish and they just started offering lessons at the station where I work and I will definitely be doing that. Sad to say, that’s not exactly a first, since I did it in college … I say if you haven’t done it in 10 years, it’s ok. There are so many places in the world I haven’t been, though I consider that more a bucket list thing. I want to go to Monaco, I want to go to Australia. Those are on my list. I would like to meet some of the women that I don’t know who will read this book. I want to hear their stories. I can’t read for those kinds of firsts. I hope it really inspires people. I hope groups of women will get together to support each other in doing first-time experiences.