First Things First


Happy new year, friends!  In honor of the first of the year, a post about firsts.

It seems to be an immutable law of nature:  Before you can do anything, you will first have to do something else.

Most of us internalize this law as children and apply it throughout our lives.  It might start as something like this:  “Not until your homework is done and you’ve finished your chores!”  Or perhaps “No dessert until you’ve eaten all your broccoli!”

As kids, it was really hard to get to the fun stuff.  Even when we finally garnered that coveted green light called “permission,” there were always preliminaries to be addressed first.  I once read a memoir that described how anytime the author wished to try his hand at a woodworking project, his father would hand him a can of bent nails to straighten out first.  Talk about taking the wind out of your sails! Another memoir described how, while growing up, the author wanted to try her hand at painting.  However, she always lost interest by the time she spread a drop cloth on the garage floor, donned a smock and reconstituted a pallet full of dried-up paints.

It’s not much different as an adult.  If you wake up all excited to tackle a project at work, first you have to shower, then get dressed, then eat breakfast and pack your lunch, then first get in your car and drive to work.  Meanwhile, you’ve been cursing the traffic, trying to remember what you were supposed to do for your kid’s school project, composing a grocery list in your head and texting your mother.  By the time you arrive at work, you’ve forgotten what you were so excited about two hours ago.  Which may be for the best, considering that your boss has now asked you to do something completely different.

In the evening, you think about preparing a delicious dinner, and how wonderful the house will smell while your masterpiece is cooking in the oven.  However, you realize that first you have to marinate the meat, and that takes a while, but it gives you time to chop the onions.  Your eyes start tearing just thinking about that when you remember that first you have to stop at the store to buy veggies and French bread.  That means that first you have to stop at the ATM and get some cash.  If you’re going to drive into town, however, first you have to stop for gas.

You decide that you’re much too tired for all that, so you just go home and eat a bowl of cereal.  You did check to see whether the kids drank all the milk again, right?  Right?

I was in elementary school when I first began to understand the rule that before you do anything you will have to do something else, usually something far less appealing.  One day, I overheard some adults mention the word “calculus” in their conversation.  I asked my father what that was, and he patiently explained that it’s an advanced form of mathematics and that I could study it in college if I felt so inclined.

“But first you have to go to high school,” he added.  “But first you have to go to junior high.”

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