Checking out check-off lists

Check-off lists have been an American tradition ever since Benjamin Franklin, deciding to be perfect, made a list of his faults, then checked them off, one by one, until none remained.

The maker of check-off lists is a native idealist who doesn't believe anything happens until it has been written down and subsequently crossed out or annotated with a crisp, triumphant check.

Naturally, there were those who laughed at Franklin, and have been laughing ever since. ''Friends howled at my compulsion to put everything on paper,'' Vivian Ubell has confessed, after confessing also to being the author of a list of 311 items to pack for a Cape Cod vacation. She does not say how long the vacation lasted, but she does reveal that she practices the style of crossing out -- the graceful sweep into oblivion of an item that has been attended to.

David Sumberg, on the other hand, prefers ''a neat check in front'' - a habit that seems to make Vivian laugh, though not rudely enough to spoil their collaboration on a paperback titled ''Check Lists: 88 Essential Lists to Help You Organize Your Life.''

For those whose daily existence lacks -- shall we say? - structure, this book will have the same devastating effect that watching John McEnroe might have on a novice who had just bought his or her first tennis racket. Vivian and David are pros, with ruthless and unyielding standards.

If you refer to the timely list headed ''Spring Chores,'' you will be commanded - along with cleaning your closets, straightening your drawers, and staging a fire drill - to chop wood for next winter.

This, before the crocuses are properly up!

Reading the Ubell-Sumberg lists, a non-listmaker suspects that listmakers are personalities who cannot rest until every last contingency has been accounted for -- on paper. Take the list itemizing ''What to Have in an Office Desk.'' We can understand the felt-tip pens, and maybe a comb, and -- why not? -- needle and thread. But when ''eating utensils'' and ''stockings (extra pair)'' and shaving equipment and dental floss start coming out of the drawers, we say, ''Enough!''

May we remind you, this is an office, not a lifeboat?

Worse consequences than a desk smelling of mouthwash await the listmaker who turns to personal relationships. On the list for ''Being a Houseguest,'' this astonishing bit of advice appears: ''Ask about peculiarities of house, hot-water limitations, quirky appliances.''

If that doesn't break off the friendship and send you packing before you've unpacked, the list for ''Having a Houseguest'' ought to do the trick from the other side. ''Discuss sharing costs,'' Ubell and Sumberg urge their hosts.

Well, we can tell you we're not about to pay for any of those quirky appliances.

Did Claudette Colbert slap a surcharge on the Reagans for exceeding their hot-water limits after a Caribbean dip? We doubt it.

This tendency toward excess can turn list-keepers into menaces to the celebration of life. We counted 219 items on the four separate lists involving preparations for a new baby. That would seem to cramp spontaneity just a bit. Does a parent really need to cross out (or check off) the item, ''Choose a name for the baby''?

We appreciate that a listmaker either has to write everything down, or write nothing down. We recognize furthermore, the comfort that listmakers get from reducing chaos to nice, neat, bite-size morsels -- almost as much comfort as the rest of us get from not keeping lists.

You can make a list for us non-listmakers, and we'll ignore it the way a cat ignores a scratching post. On the other hand, Vivian found that if she transposed items from her list to David's, he would feel compelled to perform her duties, just so he could cross them off.

This little anecdote sums up all that we find admirable, and horrifying, about lists.

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