Volume 73, Number 7 | June 16 - 22, 2004


Is your list finished? Mine isn’t

By Wickham Boyle

If your To Do list is finally finished, are you dead?

I still have a list that seems to expand endlessly. Every time I finish a good portion of the To Do’s, more appear to take their place. It is almost like an exponential expansion or the futile attempt to dig a dry hole at the beach. The calls to be made, the stuff to fix, laundry, flat tires, the waves of necessities for my children, even the fun I’d like to have; it all seems to rise up like a tsunami at the end of every week. I am sure I dedicated myself assiduously to crossing off item after item and yet my damn list appears untouched.

And as I bemoan this surfeit of activity in middle age — a time where it seems I am responsible for me, for much of a household, for cats, for two children, for work and now for many of my father’s needs — I fantasize about a time when I am free to daydream, fritter away time or, in our parents’ parlance, wool gather.

I know that my father at 90 doesn’t have a list that reads: “Shuffle to the kitchen counter; eat donuts and drink milk from the carton; take a bag of black jelly beans to the couch; attempt to eat them all while watching the news. Nap at least three times every day. Throw the newspaper in wads across the room. Keep every US News and World Report, because God knows some editor at NBC may call and require an opinion.”

My father doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything three years after my mother died. He is waiting for, as he says, “God to get unangry and take me to see your mother.” He is blissfully list free.

Are we all waiting and yet simultaneously dreading having not one damn thing to do? I think many baby boomers have made lists for so long, adjusting, augmenting and accreting that we couldn’t stop or in fact we would die. Like the famous shark in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall,” we need to move forward or we die. And one of the things that motivates and pushes us onward is our list.

My list takes the form of actual paper. This way I can keep it in my huge Filofax, I can pin it to the refrigerator and I can gleefully cross things off. Yes, let’s digress here to mock me. I still use paper, an agenda book; it’s heavy and large. I have not converted to PDA or Palm Pilot or a phone or PC that keeps lists and calls me when I have slipped off task. I like things that I can hold in my hand with scribbles in different pens, a large loopy hand or tiny, scrawny letters. The handwriting itself tells me about where my mind was when I wrote it.

I believe that one-day lists may provide an anthropological key to late 20th-century life. Historians will look back and ponder, castigating us, especially the women, for being overarching in our duties and presuming that we could be all things to all people. They will posit, “What was that lunatic thinking? Why did she take so many classes? Was there an impending doom that made her believe she had to be prepared to reupholster furniture, make ceramics, cook, ice skate, play music, knit and speak a variety of languages? Who was she calling over and over for scholarships, jobs, appointments or condolences? Why couldn’t she just go to work, come home and be done with it?”

And they might be right. I know many people who in a quest to provide a lifestyle outside the constraints of our parents’ generation have cobbled together lives that in theory allow them the flexibility to run their own show. But, in reality it means that we are consulting to everyone and everything. We are volunteering, parenting, partnering and attempting friendships while we run these lives that are indistinguishable from our careers.

I don’t really see any possibility to retire. Who would pay my pension? I have worked for myself, as a consultant, for years. There will be no Social Security, no pension; so I will work until I jump off the twig for the last time. That means I anticipate a long list running on forever. Maybe it’s a positive thing. What is sure is that when I spin the fantasy of what it will be like to be 90, I still have a list.

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