Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Oh, for a spot of spontaneity.

I have a love-hate relationship with lists. As a kid, I used to be mighty taken up with them. I realize how strange this makes me sound – other kids raised a series of stray dogs, squirrels and other assorted pets. Moi, I raised lists. Every night, I’d make a list of things I’d do the next day. ‘15 hours of studying’, ‘no TV’, ‘no comics’ were the most frequent items. I can’t recall a single day when I wrote a satisfying “done” against these. But they regularly made their appearance in list after list, based on the ‘Tomorrow’s another day’ philosophy. Occasionally, items like “drink 3 glasses of milk” or “drink at least 3 glasses of milk” (on days I felt particularly optimistic) would make an appearance, and meet the same fate as the “no TV”, “no comics” goals.  

When I was younger, making the list was itself a very pleasurable activity. Listing was sufficient – I didn’t actually have to study for 15 hours. With age, I discovered guilt.  
Happiness slowly shifted to accomplishing those goals. I had to put in the hours in order to feel happy.

Every once in a while, I’d feel that my life was being taken over by these silly lists, and stopped making them. That worked till something or the other went wrong, and I’d have a relapse of the ‘organization’ fever and start all over again. This has gone on for pretty much as long as I can remember. Over the years, I’ve tried to compromise, sought a balance between the ‘free spontaneous spirit’ I long to be, and the anal dork I really am. I do not write down things on paper any more – I kid myself that not having things down on paper makes me that much more spontaneous – I can say, oh, I just thought of doing this. And of course, it adds a delicious twist to my worrying – do I remember everything I need to remember?

Right now, I have a zillion things to take care of. Yeah, yeah, I realize that that’s the case for hundreds of zillion souls on earth and beyond – but I do have a series of deadlines coming up and am scrambling to get a number of things done. So am very much in the list mode at the moment. In fact, mentally, I’m already preparing for the next phase after my current ‘thing’ gets over (hopefully by Feb).

Couple of days ago, I went to the library to pick up ‘Greatest Man in Cedar Hole’. When I was there, I also picked up a Neal Stephenson and a Raymond Carver (authors I haven’t read) and Howard’s End (a reward to myself for my sense of adventure in picking up all these new authors). When walking back home, I thought about all the authors I hadn’t read, but was ‘supposed’ to. Felt a bit overwhelmed by the vastness of the seas I haven’t explored yet. So, plans for post-Feb start forming inside my head. At the top of the list was ‘make a list of genres you haven’t read, and devise a plan to attack them systematically’. At 15, the high from just that thought would’ve lasted 2 days. Yesterday, I simply felt heart-broken.

Boggarts are shape-shifters. Lists are pleasure-shifters. The pleasure you derive from any action is shifted from the action to the list. If I had ‘Read the Sunday Times fully’ on my list, then I the pleasure I get from reading the Times moves to the point when I strike that item off my list. There is also a distinct difference in the emotion involved - it’s not that reading Nicholas Kristoff is any less enjoyable, only that writing a ‘done’ against ‘Did justice to Sunday paper’ feels more satisfying.

So, you feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s joy, too, right? The pleasure is still there, the timing is a little off, that’s all. But is it only pleasure delayed?  Isn’t it also pleasure deformed? Worse, it becomes pain if you don’t do something on the assigned day. Reading the Sunday paper should be unalloyed fun. Reading your favorite Op-ed columnist all the more so. I was able to do neither yesterday, and plan to use the rest of the week to feel guilty.

To get back to my post-library depression – I had started thinking of authors I haven’t read, genres I haven’t tried, places to visit, friends to meet (in short, life after Feb). I felt sick to my stomach. Did I have to reduce everything, even reading to a list? If you start listing your pleasures, don’t they automatically cease to be pleasures? You’re supposed to list things like ‘pay phone bill’ – (Give me a few minutes while I quickly pay that bill. Good thing I started this post – I actually do have to pay my phone bill… perhaps it is a good idea to write stuff down!) not things like ‘ask friend S about ‘Last Tango in Paris – it might be fun’. Even ‘call friend S’ is OK, but anything more than just will move the pleasure you have in the conversation, to after the conversation when you can tell yourself, yes, I did discuss Last Tango in Paris, and yes, it was kinda fun. Btw, I didn’t get to speak with my friend about the movie, either. It was one wasted week end, list-wise.

And people take undue advantage of you once they figure out your weakness. My roomie refuses to make shopping lists. He knows he only has to mention something to me, and I’ll lie awake nights making sure I remember everything to get from the grocery store. Among friends, I am the designated worry wart – have something to take care of? Don’t bother putting it in your planner - just mention it to DoZ, it will get taken care of. So, now not only do I have my own list demons, I’m baby-sitting other people’s demons, too. (The only people who are worse than me are my parents. With them, I know I can do what my friends do to me with impudence. No wonder my parents don’t see the ‘responsible’, ‘dependable’, ‘salt of the earth’ DoZ that my friends see.)

Once in a while, I attempt minor rebellions, only to have it bite me in the ass.
Roomie: What do we need to get at Kroger today?
DoZ: I don’t know.

Fast forward to the next morning – no milk. These things never bother my roomie as much as they do me. Axiom of life – it’s always the ring-bearer, er, list-bearer’s ass that’s on the line, and I hastily re-don my mantle of list-keeper.  

It’s great to be organized. It’s great to have a plan. I just wish I could leave some things in life well alone. Knowing me, I’d probably make a list of which things I’m not supposed to make a list about. Am not asking for too much, really. I don’t want to get to a point where I have a ‘do something spontaneous at 3:17 PM’ item on my list.  

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It's clear to me from your post that as list-keepers go you are a rank novice. Listen and learn. Here is my summary, five-point list of the zen of list-making:

1) Never actually use the list you make. Either lose it or leave it behind. Then, at the end of the day, you can play the game where you compare the things the list had that you forgot (score one for the list) and the things you forgot to put on the list but managed to get done anyway (score one for you).

2) Use the list as a way of making yourself feel spontaneous. Put things on the list and then don't do them. Like say you need eggs. DON'T put this on the list. That way the fact that you come back from the supermarket with eggs shows that you're spontaneous and can think beyond lists and are capable of making split second decisions. This works on much bigger things as well. For example, I used to worry about not being in a relationship - I was convinced I was a loser. Then I put 'get into a relationship' on a list of life objectives, and ever since then I'm not in a relationship yet because I'm 'free-spirited'

3) The real joy of lists is not in making them and sticking to them - it's in revising them. Never throw a list away until you've made at least ten different versions of it, each time coming up with a good reason why the earlier version was wrong, and having a good laugh at the expense of the person who made the earlier list in the process.

4) Make higher order lists. That is, make a list of all the lists you need to make. Then make a list of all the lists you've made but have open (this could be scored on a 1-10 scale for completeness). Then make a list of all the lists that you never actually got around to making. Then of all the lists you haven't made, and don't want to, but figure you will anyway, just for the fun of it, and so on.

5) Finally, remember that the primary purpose of a list is to have a security net, a comfort blanket. What if I go all the way to the supermarket and then there isn't one single thing I need? What if someone magically gives me a hundred dollars to spend and I don't have a list of books I'm daying to get? Of course, the books / groceries you actually buy may look nothing like your original list, but that's not the point. You had something you could buy if you hadn't been able to think up something spontaneously
You sound just like my sister!
Good one, btw :)
Thank you, Shruthi. If your sisteris as list-obsessed, my sympathies to you & her.
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