My life of lists

I’m in good company as I cross off groceries, errands, books ...

John Kehe

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” features a comic song (“As Some Day It May Happen”) about a list of people society could better do without. These include banjo serenaders, peppermint-eaters, and people with irritating laughs. I don’t particularly sympathize with these peeves (except, maybe, the banjo serenaders), but the keeping of lists resonates with me.

Since I was a teenager, I have made lists as navigational aids to keep me on track, steady my trajectory, and give me a means of accounting for my day. I have a “books to read” list, a “movies to see” list, and a “places to visit” list (where New Zealand perennially hovers at the top). I periodically review these lists to remind myself that life is laden with opportunities to learn, discover, and explore.

Preeminent is my daily to-do list. Here is today’s: bank, haircut, food shopping, email Marlene, post office, buy cinder blocks, water shrub. I carry my to-do lists with me, and as I complete each task I cross it off, which gives me the most exquisite shiver of accomplishment.

As a listmaker I am in very good company. My soul mates include such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Richard Branson, Ronald Reagan, and Steve Jobs. And then there was Ben Franklin, the consummate listmaker who used his lists for the purpose of self-improvement. 

Franklin’s lists were so finely tuned that the individual tasks corresponded to specific times of day. For example, one of his surviving lists prescribes his rising at 5, eating breakfast at 7, and commencing work at 9. At noon he read and then dined. At 6 he “put things in their places.” And, poignantly, he assigned the following task to 10 p.m.: “Evening question, What good have I done today?”

I didn’t think all that much of list-keeping until I read a comment by Italian novelist Umberto Eco, to wit: “The list is the origin of culture.... Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists.”

Wow. When I first read this I took out my day’s list and perused its mundane tasks (buy yogurt, talk to Chris, get car inspected ...). I tried to imagine it forming a facet of my culture’s history. I think it fell short. But no matter: Sometimes a task is worth doing simply because it is enjoyable; it needn’t be part of the tiller directing a civilization’s progress. 

However, I concur with Mr. Eco in the sense that listmaking is not a trivial pursuit. After all, a handwritten to-do list by Johnny Cash, who died in 2003, was sold at auction for $6,400.

I have made lists for so long that I have to take occasional pains to remind myself that doing so is not a universal pursuit. For example, the other day I was in the supermarket with my shopping list in hand. I chose a Big Beef tomato and then paused to cross it off my list. I continued on to the cheese aisle, picked up some Skellig Sweet Cheddar (“not too sharp”), and crossed it off my list. And on and on, like a journey with multiple legs. In the coffee and tea aisle I ran into a passing acquaintance. When she saw me tending my list, she laughed and waved me off. “I don’t keep a shopping list,” she volunteered. “I just buy on impulse.” As I watched her move off with her cart, all I could think of was a rudderless ship adrift at sea, subject to the vagaries of the wind.

I continued on, arriving at my crescendo in the frozen foods aisle, where I drew a line through the last item on my list – Mrs. T’s Pierogies. 

My tasks accomplished, I went home and drew up the next day’s to-do list, mindful of something written by an online blogger named Benjamin Harman: “Have you ever noticed that people who keep lists are never listless?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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