Ah, a New Year! Of course, this one is more of a “thing” than most New Years; the common consensus, of course is that 2020 was a bad year and that any new year past that has got to portend better days. But equally “of course”, the coronavirus doesn’t give a shit what day, month, or year it is, and there is no doubt that 2021 could indeed be worse. Certainly it has started out worse (that is, Utah has a woefully weak snowpack!); hopefully it will improve over the course of the year.
But a new year is always a good time for both reflection and optimism, and in the spirit of reflection I am reflecting on the “newness” of 2020. You see, I am a geek – that fact is not news to anyone who knows me – and I like to keep track of the new fun things that I do. Actually, the truth is that I keep track of ALL of the fun things that I do, and admit that I have been doing so for 18 years. Yep, I started a simple spreadsheet that I called “Fun” in 2002, and I feel pretty confident that every “fun” activity that I’ve done over that time has been entered onto that spreadsheet. It started out as simply a reminder sheet for me: I did this river at this flow, and it was like this, it took about this much amount of time, and watch out for that, all for future reference. But I quickly got carried away – as I am wont to do – and started even listing simple mundane mountain bike rides, hikes, runs, etc that didn’t necessitate remembering any relevant info, but.. en toto, they added up to something interesting (at least, to me).
Thus I find myself many years later, with 18 different sheets in one excel file, with the first column being date, second is the activity, who with, etc. Yes, I admit: it is indeed super geeky. But it’s kinda fun and even at times kinda interesting: what was I doing last year in mid-January? Oh that’s right; that was great! How about mid-January in 2007? Perhaps mid-January isn’t all that interesting, because most of my mid-winter entries are along the lines of “Activity: b/c skiing. Location: Gobblers. People: Ash, Colin, and Paul. Conditions: Glorious. Notes: Super fun.” But even seeing something like that gives me warm fuzzies that I was indeed having as much fun then as I hoped I was.
One of the columns is titled “new?” If it’s a new activity/venue I put a “1” in that box, which never ceases to provide me a little shot of endorphin (chemical warm fuzzy). And at the end of the year I do a “sum” equation at the bottom of that column to get a total of how many new things I have done (okay, I also do that equation as the year progresses!) and that total gives me a huge shot of endorphins; I love doing new things. My 2020 efforts paid off; I was able to get in 124 new outings (it’s getting harder every year!).
Of course, that begs the question: what is new? Sometimes I’ll do a variation on an old classic; is that new? Of course, Ashley has been painfully aware of my Fun sheet for a long time, and every once in a while I’ll ask her: “is this considered new?” Sometimes it elicits a good conversation: “well, this is a variation, but is it big enough? You did this in nineteen hundred and ninety one – is there a statute of limitations? Do you remember anything about doing it then?” However, invariably the conversation comes around to this: “Well, it’s your game; if you want to cheat at your own game – that has no other players, and no one else cares about – then go right ahead and cheat!”
Lately I’ve been thinking a bit more about the fundamental concept of doing “new things” (I guess after 18 years it’s about time!). I have realized that focusing on The New has its drawbacks: One is that it’s not very efficient. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you gotta try to figure it out, and even if you try to figure it out in advance, it’s impossible to remember the details and even if you could, the reality of the terrain – for example – doesn’t mesh with the image you’ve created in your head from the map or the info that you had. So you spend more time at intersections or decision points, trying to determine the best route going forward, maybe looking at maps:
Or dundering with your phone:
Of course too, you run a far higher risk of going “the wrong way” – well, maybe it’s not “wrong” per se, but it’s sub-optimal – and turning about to find the right way. Which is usually not that big of a deal….until your wrong way took way too long and you are now running out of light, water, food, energy, or all of the above. And Strava doesn’t care if you know where the hell you are going or not; if nailing fast times is your gig, then do routes you know; doing new routes is way too inefficient to be truly fast.
Recently there was a Hidden Brain podcast called “A Creature of Habit” that talked about our inherent tendency to have habits. As we all know, habits can be good, bad, or neither (or even both!). The Covid 19 era has upended this for many of us; habits associated with work, family, social get-togethers, etc have, by necessity, changed dramatically. In the podcast the interviewee looks at various ways we have chosen to cope with that at a habitual level: choosing to engage with “safe” things that we know and trust, making quick, safe modifications to old habits, or actually using the opportunity of the disruption to create new habits. It seems that a lot of people did indeed use the opportunity; it’s almost a cliché by now, but I have friends who have lost a bunch of weight and gotten quite fit, learned to bake bread, finally focused on learning the guitar, etc. and actually found a lot of fulfillment in these “new” activities in an otherwise-difficult times. For me, in the spring in particular, I focused my outdoor adventure interests in relatively obscure stuff that I either hadn’t done at all or hadn’t done in a long time, regardless of the potential quality of them.
Which brings up an interesting question: what about the quality of outings? Should you sacrifice the known quality of the known “good” to take the chance on the unknown New? In our bizzy lives, where we need to maximize our time – should we focus our limited availability on “the best” stuff to not waste our time dundering around on potentially sub-optimal outings or adventures? Generally it seems to me that the potential buzz of successfully figuring out something new is underrated as we ponder our options, just as the buzz of yet-again knocking out the known entity is somewhat overrated. Additionally, if you only do the classics, or only do the outings in the perfect conditions, odds are pretty good that other folks have been paying attention too, so if relative solitude in your outings is important in an era where it seems like everyone is doing outdoor adventures that can be a factor as well. As I like to say, if you do sorta dumb new things, you’ll likely not find them to be very crowded!
Recently I heard a Fresh Air interview with Sanjay Gupta; to be honest, I knew that name as some sort of pundit, but I wasn’t quite sure who he was. Turns out he’s one of those way overachiever folks who’s a neurosurgeon, professor, chair of his department, and oh by the way, the chief medical correspondent for CNN. And of course, he’s a bestselling author, with a new book out called “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain At Any Age” (and no doubt he has a family and is probably also a symphony cellist or somesuch). I haven’t read the book (yet?) but he pointed out that the concept that your brain has the ability to develop pretty much all the way ‘til dementia sets in (I may be exaggerating a little here….). He sang some music to my ears when he said something to the effect of “even though your brain isn’t a muscle, it acts/reacts like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the better it gets. And the way to exercise it is….to do new things!” His point was that even little things like navigating through relatively unfamiliar streets pushes and stretches your brain, which in turn makes it more able to further accept and process info and knowledge (let’s hope that Joe Biden has been doing a lot of new things lately,thus pushing his brain around so it maintains plenty of alacrity over at least the next four years!).
You don’t have to be as geeky as me and keep track of all the activities you do, and in fact you don’t even have to do new things; in that Hidden Brain podcast they emphasized that if you need to eat your mom’s casserole recipe and snuggle with your tattered old teddy bear to be happy, do it! But being creative and looking for The New is a fun way to not only keep yourself entertained in a challenging environment, it’ll help your brain “Keep Sharp!”