Although I grew up in the Northeast, I’ve lived in the South for the last decade. While you can take the boy out of the North and you can’t take the North out of him, that doesn’t mean that I have been indoctrinated to all things Southern either.
When my wife and I first moved south, there was a reception at the church that we went to where we were exposed to the southern phenomenon of RC and moonpies. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can probably just Google it. Slowly, we began to see more and more of the cultural differences between north and south. We began to appreciate a lot of them and did our best to expose ourselves to them.
As much as I have tried to embrace some of those differences (think when in Rome), there are just some things that I struggled to fully understand or even think about embracing. Take for instance boiled peanuts. You’re talking to a guy who likes chunky peanut butter, why on earth would I think about doing something to peanuts that makes them softer rather than crunchy?
How about okra? My wife’s made me a believer, but it took a lot of time and effort because, to be honest, when you cut up okra, you get what looks like snot all over the place as it oozes out of the okra. While it’s not my favorite, I’ve grown to appreciate it more than I did before. At least I’ll eat it now.
I could go on and on with a list and I am sure that all of my friends raised in the South could come up with an equivalent list of all of the northern idiosyncrasies.
This past weekend, I was finally exposed to what I have considered a southern phenomenon for all of my 10 years south of the Mason-Dixon Line: NASCAR.
Now, I’m not going to argue about the idea of it being a sport, that’s a topic for another day, I just didn’t get it. Not sure why I didn’t get it because I’ve been known to watch golf here and there or even World Cup Soccer (or Football, depending on where you reside). But the idea of sitting at a hot track, surrounded by people whose body art and wardrobe choices may very well have been made under the influence of one too many Budweisers, watching a bunch of cars go around a track like 400 or 500 times? It just didn’t make much sense to me.
But, hey, I’ve been known to be wrong before…..
So, when given the opportunity and the invitation to not only a NASCAR race here in my own Richmond, Virginia, complete with pit and garage tour, it seemed like just the opportunity that I needed to get acclimated to this phenomenon.
At the heart of who I am, I am a learner. Any chance that I have to learn something new, I will seize. So, this opportunity was ripe for the picking. In fact, as the day came closer, my anticipation and excitement grew more and more. I began to wonder how I might actually fit in to this new environment. I knew that wardrobe would be key. I wisely abandoned the idea of wearing my Bart Simpson T-shirt that says, “I see dumb people” and instead opted for my T-shirt with everyone’s favorite American kid, Opie. How could I go wrong with that?
Thankfully, my host was knowledgeable about NASCAR and motorsports, enough to keep me hanging on his every word to see what I might learn. We walked through the pit, saw the cars, smelled the tires, heard the sounds, and I can unequivocally tell you that I was immersed into the experience.
Now, mind you, I had NEVER watched a NASCAR race in my entire forty plus years of existence. Never. Ever. Watched.
As soon as the announcer said, “Drivers, start your engines,” I felt the goose bumps go up my arms. The engines roared, the cars filed onto the track, they swerved as they broke in their wheels, and after the obligatory initial laps behind the pace car, they took off. And from the moment that they started until the moment that the winner crossed the finish line 400 laps later, I was on the edge of my seat.
Sure, I was hoping for a crash here and there, not because I wanted anyone to be injured but just because I’m still a little boy deep inside, longing for explosions and action. There were no crashes. In fact, from what I heard from friends, it was among the most boring races that have taken place at Richmond International Raceway in recent years, but you know what? I was none the wiser……
……because this was the first time that I had ever seen any of this. Ever.
My friend’s wife noticed me on the edge of my seat for most of the race. Not sure if she saw the twinkle of excitement and wonder in my eyes or not. Not sure if she could hear me (or at least read my lips) as I pulled for someone to catch the leader. Regardless, I went to my first NASCAR race and it’s behind me.
What an incredible reminder it was for me of how we look at things when we see them for the very first time. There’s a sense of mystery, awe, wonder, and excitement that exists once, and only once. It can hardly be recaptured again because there is only one first time. The same look that my friend’s wife saw on me was the look that I have seen in my children many times before as they experience things for the very first time. It was there at Disney a few weeks ago.
You know what else I realized? I realized that when I experienced something that I knew well with someone who was experiencing it for the first time, it was as if I WAS experiencing it for the first time all over again. There was anticipation and wonder and excitement as I waited for their reaction. And I wonder if my friends had that same kind of excitement in them as they watched me experiencing this race for the first time. New sights. New sounds. New smells. It was a multi-sensory experience.
No, there will never be another first time, but it’s possible to recapture that excitement when I remember what it was like to step into that moment for the very first time. It’s too easy to get caught up in schedule or routine, blindly walking through life and falling into a rhythm that somehow zombifies me, rendering me among the walking dead. It’s too easy to miss the wonder and excitement because I’ve forgotten what things felt like when I experienced them for the first time.
Whenever I get that feeling, I just need to remember, I need to recapture the wonder, and if worse comes to worse, I just need to grab someone who hasn’t experienced it before so that I have the benefit of seeing the same wonder, joy, and excitement in them in hopes that it might stir up something in me, helping me to remember just what those feelings were when I experienced them for the very first time.