The List

100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life


By Gail Belsky

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Get a tattoo, ride in a fire truck, or use food as foreplay—in short, get out there and shake things up! Fun, inspirational, and incredibly motivating, The List offers one hundred ideas—ranging from challenging to outrageous—for women who have been craving a little novelty in their lives.

With instructions and inspirational stories from women who have risen to the challenge, The List will excite, scare, and push readers to do something they’ve always dreamed of, or better yet, to do something they’ve never dared consider. Whether it’s writing a novel, running a marathon, or taking on a lover, The List delivers what many women are missing—taste of adventure and a light kick in the butt.


To Julian, Madeline, and William

I rarely step outside of my comfort zone, so writing a book about shaking things up was a voyeuristic thrill for me. Skydiving, starting a charity, sleeping with a much younger man . . . these are things I never consider. I have to sedate myself just to fly in a jet with a seat belt on; the idea of my going up in a dinky little plane and jumping out with a parachute is pretty hysterical. There aren't enough pills in the world.
But that's what stepping outside of your comfort zone is—doing things that are exciting or challenging, even if the mere thought of them makes you sweat bullets. It's about going skydiving because you're afraid, not in spite, of it. I learned this from the eighty-two women I interviewed for The List who've pushed past their fears and beyond their expectations to do all kinds of cool things—including Jan St. John, who watched her children jump from the plane before she did.
Every time I spoke to one of these women, I felt totally lame—and truly inspired. Hearing how flamenco dance lessons changed Julie Tilsner's life made me want to pick up a pair of castanets for myself, and for every woman I know. When you read these stories, you can't help but be inspired—if not to dance, then to dive off a cliff. Or bake a wedding cake. Or strip. Or do whatever's been languishing on your to-try list for years. You'll love the women of The List because they're just like you, except that they've already gotten a Brazilian wax or taken surfing lessons, and you haven't. Not yet.
Not all the shake-ups on The List are going to capture your fancy. Just because Anna Melillo went to Burning Man and slept in a converted prison bus for a week doesn't mean you'd entertain the notion for a nanosecond. But reading about the amazing art installations and incredible sense of community she found there might send you off in search of your own enriching experience.
I made a hundred plans while writing The List. When I got off the phone with Peg Krygowski after hearing about her cross-country bike trip with her daughter, I rushed to tell my own fifteen-year-old daughter, Madeline, all about it. After talking to Jan St. John about cliff diving in Costa Rica with her grown daughter, I implored Madeline to still want to go away with me when she's grown up. And after talking to M. J. Miller about swimming with manatees in Florida, I screamed upstairs to tell Madeline that I'd found our destination and made her come down and see how cute those manatees looked online. (My son, William, wasn't too thrilled about being left out of the plans, but I'll happily do something special with him, too.)
Manatees with Madeline is on my list now. Here are some other things I hope to get around to doing in the not-too-distant future:
• Sit on the board of a nonprofit organization
• Take William to Venice
• Learn to dive off a diving board
• Take dance lessons
Some of the women I interviewed even told me they had their own list drawn up and were crossing things off as they did them. Sometimes we need to put things on paper to remember how truly important they are.

If you were one of those girls who spent the whole of junior high with her head in a book, you might still harbor a dream of writing your own novel. Perhaps you sit in book club every month picking apart the selection and secretly thinking, Why didn't I try becoming a writer?
The better question is, why not try now? Many famous novelists have gotten off to a late start. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, at age sixty-five. Harriet Doerr was seventy-four when her first book, Stones for Ibarra, won a National Book Award in 1984.
Rachel Cline of New York City started writing her first novel, What to Keep, when she was forty-one and had it published in 2004 at age forty-seven. It was her lifelong dream come true. "I had wanted to be a published writer since I was ten," says Cline. "When I turned forty I thought, If I want to write a book, I'd better start, because nobody's going to ask me to do it. Now I can say I am a fiction writer."
Selling a book requires a great deal of luck, but writing one simply takes guts. It's not easy to let go of your insecurities, especially since you've been living with them for two or three decades. But how powerful would you feel if you beat back your fears and actually did the thing? Think about it: Right now, the biggest difference between you and the accomplished novelists mentioned above is that they sat down and committed themselves to writing.
Are you ready to get started? Here's what you need to do:
First, think about how you like to work. Novel writing moves at two basic speeds: fast and furious, or slow and steady. If you enjoy working on an extreme deadline—or if you're afraid you'd wimp out if you don't—look into National Novel Writing Month ( This virtual speed-writing program has you starting to write on November 1 and finishing a 175-page, fifty-thousand-word novel by midnight on November 30.
If playing Beat the Clock when you work makes you frantic, rather than focused, try a more methodical approach. Writing coach Alice Elliott Dark, author of the novel Think of England and two collections of short stories, lays out this step-by-step plan:
• Pick a genre and choose five novels that belong to it.
• Examine how they are put together. Outline each scene. What happens in each one? How does it advance the story? What's the conflict?
• Read books about writing. Focus on learning about how the plot comes out of the characters. Create your characters and know what type of people they are, and your plot will unfold.
• Look at your schedule. When are you going to work on your book? Be realistic, too, about how long it takes to become a good writer. No one expects to learn to play the violin in six months, so don't be surprised if it takes you longer to write your book than you thought it would.
• Get going and don't look back—not until you've gotten through a first draft. If you revise your work every step of the way, you may never actually arrive at the end. Be playful. Love your characters. Use your imagination. Have fun!

For those of us who are so busy that our primary form of exercise is a sprint through the supermarket, the idea of doing a triathlon can be tantalizing—pounding feet, racing heart, the sheer exhilaration of forward motion. What makes this running/biking/ swimming competition so compelling is the same thing that makes it so scary: the level of commitment it requires. It's not like skiing, whereby you can go once or twice a year without any training leading up to it. To be a triathlete, you've got to train for sixty to ninety minutes a few times a week for a couple of months. Once you get into it, though, you'll have an enormous sense of accomplishment as you carry yourself forward to the day of your actual event.
My friend Patty, a longtime runner, upped the ante for herself when she entered the 2007 Danskin Triathlon in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, one of fifty women's-only races held in the United States each year. Competing for the first time at age forty-eight, she never expected to finish. But halfway through the competition, she realized she was doing it: "I was passing people. I thought, I'm actually enjoying myself. I'm going to do it in decent time. And I'm having fun."
Because Patty already ran a few times a week, ramping up for the triathlon was relatively simple; she just built on what was already there. But if you've never done much running, or if you've let it slide for a while, you'll need to work on that first. Sounds obvious, but start with a good pair of running shoes. Many factors determine which shoe is best for you: how tall you are, where you'll be running, how high your arch is. Go to a specialty store, and have someone knowledgeable help you choose the right shoe.
Before you raise your foot to run, be sure to lower your expectations. Even if you've run before, if you push yourself too fast, you'll likely get discouraged and quit. Set a modest goal for your first outing—ten minutes if you're a novice, fifteen if you're getting back into it—but if it gets too difficult before then, stop and walk awhile. With subsequent runs, increase your time slowly until you can run comfortably for thirty to forty minutes. At that point, you're ready to start triathlon training. The question is, how do you want to do it?
Some women happily train alone; others need buddies to keep them motivated. Patty never would have competed in the Danskin race if her three regular running mates hadn't signed up, too. Making a commitment to one another made it easier for them to stick to their three-month training regimen. They started with their normal running schedule—forty-five minutes, three times a week—then worked in the other triathlon components: swimming and cycling. They'd meet at the community pool at five forty-five, run three to four miles, and return at six thirty for the "commuter swim." On Saturday mornings they'd go on women's bike rides organized by their local bike shop.
For Patty, who has two children and a full-time job, the rigorous training paid off in more ways than one. "It was a totally selfish thing," she says. "Whatever was going on Saturday mornings, I wasn't available, so everyone else had to deal. I decided that this is what matters to me right now."

If it's true that sexy is as sexy does, stripping should do it for you like no black lace thong ever could. That's because feeling sexy and looking sexy are two different things. You may think that bumping and grinding and tossing your panties is something you do to please others, but the person who's supposed to be turned on by your show is actually you. How refreshing is that?
If you're not happy with your body or are embarrassed to show it off, stripping can be one of the most liberating things you can do. Imagine being naked, dancing, happy to flaunt your body, despite its flaws. Imagine being a sexy beast—and loving every minute of it.
Deb Kovak took her first exotic-dance class at age forty-eight, after her nineteen-year marriage ended and she became an empty-nester. "When is it ever about you? Well, this is all about me," she says. "It's an awakening to realize that you have to love yourself. It's the sense of freedom . . . of giving yourself permission to let go. It's so empowering to feel good about yourself."
Unless you're living among the mountain goats, chances are good that an exotic-dance class is offered within driving distance of your home. Stripping and pole dancing have become a nationwide fad, with classes popping up in studios and gyms everywhere. You don't need to take a class; there are plenty of how-to DVDs you can rent or buy to teach yourself at home. But there's something comforting, not to mention fun, about letting loose in a room full of women. Until class begins, here are a few ideas to get you started, courtesy of Wendy Reardon, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Exotic and Pole Dancing and the owner of the Gypsy Rose exotic- and pole-dancing studio in Quincy, Massachusetts.
• Choose a song that makes you feel sexy. Then choose an outfit—something you can peel down, not up over your head.
• Turn on the music and walk into the room very slowly. Step, step, pause, pause. Caress your body lightly with one finger as you go.
• Gently lower yourself to a squat, hands on your knees for balance. Get down onto the floor, one knee at a time. Stick out your butt, and rotate it in circles. Roll your neck for drama.
• Stand up with your butt first and stick it out as far as it will go. Draw your arms up your thighs. Keep stroking yourself lightly. If there's a part of your body you don't like, act like you love it.
• Do a sexy walk over to a wall. Turn around and, with your back against the wall, start sliding down. Slide your hands down your body as you move down the wall.
• Crawl to your partner, rolling your neck. Stand up again, butt first, and undo your costume. Slide the sleeve or strap down one arm and then the other. Slowly peel your outfit down your body to the floor.
• Turn away from your partner. Lean over and bring the costume down to your knees. Then let it fall to the floor and step out of it with one foot.
• Take your clothing and toss it over your shoulder, but don't turn around just yet. Back up slowly and sit on your partner's lap. Take his or her hands and put them on your boobs. Now turn around and do what you want to do, but never forget that this is for you.

As a society, we're not very good at sitting around. We like action, decision, results. That's probably why so many sayings exist to mollify us when we do have to bide our time: "Patient as a saint." "Patience is a virtue." "Good things come to those who wait." But if you've ever spent twelve hours in the middle of the ocean with a fishing rod and a pack of antinausea gum, you know those platitudes don't always help.
Of all the hobbies you can take up, fishing has the lowest patience-to-payoff ratio. When you make a model airplane, it may take you six months to finish, but at least you have an impressive Cessna 172 Skyhawk to show for your time. If the fish aren't biting, you can sit there forever and come home with nothing. However, for real enthusiasts, waiting isn't a problem. The longer it takes to catch the big one, the sweeter it is when you do.
Many anglers have fishing in their blood, and their love of the sport runs deep. Like Kathleen Curran, they were raised with a pole in one hand and bait in the other. Curran, who's fifty-eight, started fishing with her father when she was four and vividly remembers his hauling her out of bed one night to see a thirty-five-pound striped bass he'd caught. They would get up at three in the morning to fish in the Hudson River, near the Statue of Liberty, in their little aluminum boat—just the two of them and their own private statue.
When Curran was thirteen, her father wanted to go catch a shark, so she and her brother went out with him and chummed, tossing pig's blood and fish parts into the water to attract the shark. "Sure enough, we got a hit; we were using half a bluefish as bait," she says. "I turned the wheel and it wouldn't go. The shark played for a little while and then let go. The hook was bent sideways—the shark was that big."
That was the one that got away.
It took forty-three more years, but in 2006, Curran finally caught the big one.
While vacationing at an eco-camp on the Baja California peninsula, Curran hired a local fisherman to take her out for the day in his skiff. Carrying a hat and a cooler of sandwiches and cold beers, she met him at his boat at dawn. For the first few hours, she fished for bait. Eventually, she caught a yellowfin tuna. Then they headed out to the middle of the Sea of Cortez. Curran took the last piece of live bait, put it on a hook, and let it go.
"Within seconds, up jumps this beautiful dorado," she says. "I had to play that fish to get him in. It was an epic battle. The fisherman never saw a woman do this. The dorado was four and a half feet long. It was huge, with a head like a dolphin. It was every color . . . like a rainbow. Right before it died, it just glittered."
Curran cried. That day, May 28, was the anniversary of her father's death. "I just felt like it was his spirit," she says.
Curran returned to shore after eight hours on the water. The hired fishermen usually clean the fish, but she took care of this one herself. She cleaned it, filleted it, packaged it up, and gave it to friends. "It's a very personal thing," she says. "I'm always mindful. It's really a spiritual link you have with the creature—you took his life. It didn't even dawn on me until the fish was in the boat what day it was."

Just before I started writing this book, I planned a trip to Paris with my children—something I swore I wouldn't do until I had learned to speak some French. In 1985 I spent a week in that stunning city, wandering the streets on my own while the friend I was staying with was at work. Without knowing the language, I was virtually mute and totally incompetent. I couldn't even read a menu, so every day I ordered croque monsieur for lunch by pointing to it. Pathetic.
I never got around to taking French lessons, and if luck (or fate) hadn't intervened, I would have returned to Paris after two decades with nothing to say for myself. But while I was doing research to prepare for writing this List item, I uncovered an incredible opportunity: The Alliance Française in New York had just started holding classes in my town in New Jersey—half a mile from my house. I could walk there, for God's sake. So I signed up for the eleven-week beginners' course and began the next week.
On the first day of class, I was surprised by how nervous I felt. (I had visions of myself on the first day of middle school, waiting for the bus in my Quiana dress and platform shoes.) What was there to worry about? I had breezed through Spanish in school and was fairly fluent by the time I got to college. Surely, in three months, I could figure out how to ask for potage or fromage without humiliating myself.
Or not.
Clearly, I lacked confidence. Maybe it wouldn't come so easily this time. Maybe I wouldn't be able to make the sounds, grasp the sentence structures, or remember the verb conjugations as easily as I had in seventh grade. When I first talked about doing this book, my friend Pam told me that she thinks the older we get, the less we think of ourselves as learners. That didn't resonate with me . . . not until I stood in the doorway of a classroom at St. James Church, clutching my new notebook and pen.
Believe it or not, there are more than one hundred independent chapters of the Alliance Française throughout the United States—including five in New Jersey, eight in Texas, and fifteen in California. That's not the only place to get your croissant buttered, however. Colleges, junior colleges, and community schools also teach adult education classes in French and other languages, and the web offers many options. I particularly like the British Broadcasting Company's program at
Class was hard and confusing. I wasn't as quick as I should have been, and I'm sure nerves had a lot to do with it. But I walked out of there feeling excited—and really pleased with myself. My daughter, Madeline, a strong French student in tenth grade, helped me with my homework, and my twelve-year-old novice, William, drilled me on the alphabet. They thought it was hilarious.
I dropped out of the course early to focus on my book deadlines, and I didn't learn as much as I had hoped to. But when I came back from Paris, I was thrilled to find that I wasn't half the nincompoop I was two decades ago. I could handle the most important dialogue: "Hello. I don't speak French. Do you speak English?" I could also read signs and menus and could pronounce the words somewhat intelligibly, which meant that I didn't have to point at my brioche sucre at the boulangerie in order to eat breakfast.

There's a wild book called Spiritual Midwifery—written by Ina May Gaskin, the mother of all midwives—that I used to give out to my pregnant friends. Gaskin delivered babies on a large Tennessee commune that she and her husband formed in 1971, called The Farm, and has attended more than twelve hundred births since then.
The first half of the book provides case histories (with graphic descriptions and hippie-dippie lingo) of births on the commune. Men sit behind their laboring partners and rub the women's nipples to bring on contractions (or "rushes," as they're called in the book); in turn, the laboring women bellow like moose to deal with the pain. It's a fun read and an excellent guide to the childbirth process.
The second half of the book includes explicit instructions on delivering babies. Reading it during my first pregnancy, I was riveted by the mechanics of childbirth and devoured the entire manual. I learned about rotating shoulders, turning around breeches, and loosening umbilical cords wrapped around babies' necks. Put me in a taxi with a woman in labor, and I'd have that baby out in no time.
Books aren't real life, though, and when I had the chance, years later, to witness the miracle of birth, I was a big, fat chicken about it.
When my sister Judy had her first child in 2001, she invited our older sister Lauren to attend. Lauren spent the entire time at Judy's feet, literally jumping up and down as our nephew came out, saying, "This is the best thing you ever did for me!" Three years later, Judy invited me to her second birth. I stood up at her head the entire time. When the baby crowned, I took two steps toward the doctor to watch my niece make her debut—an unbelievable experience, even from five feet away. Still, I wish I'd been brave enough to get closer, because I may never have another chance to be part of something so magical.
• Find something to cover the baby, like a towel, blanket, or shirt.
• Birth is imminent when you can see the head crowning. Put your hand in front of the baby's head as it comes out.
• The baby will turn to one side. Gently guide the shoulders as they come out; the body will slip out after them.
• Put the baby on top of the mother, cover it, and rub it.
• If the baby doesn't cry after thirty seconds, pick it up and gently blow two puffs of air into the nose and mouth.
• Don't cut the cord. Go straight to the hospital.
Kriss Kovach, a forty-two-year-old lactation consultant, has attended many births. "It seems both run-of-the-mill and absolutely ridiculous. There's the gut-churning anticipation of seeing another person's head lodged into an impossibly tight spot and wondering if they are going to breathe. The baby seems to glow and bring warmth into the room. It's like kryptonite: not much mass, but a lot of energy."
Laurie Bleich, a fifty-four-year-old midwife, should be jaded by now, but she's still awed by the magnitude of childbirth. "It's life-changing," she says. "It's just exciting to be at a birth, and then you go home. I almost look at people differently. People are always having life changes, and you never know anything about them, but here I was, a witness to one."
If you're lucky, somebody close to you will invite you to witness a birth. You might even get to participate. To watch one human being emerge from another—ten fingers, ten toes, and perfect—is an indescribable experience. One last push, and another person's joined the party.


On Sale
Nov 18, 2008
Page Count
225 pages
Seal Press

Gail Belsky

About the Author

Gail Belsky is a consulting magazine editor and professor of journalism at Fordham University. An eight-year veteran of women’s magazines, Gail was executive editor at Working Mother and Senior Editor at Parents. She worked on the launch of Time Inc.’s women’s magazine title, All You. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

Learn more about this author