To Do. To Don't.

It was one of the first days that the sun was unleashed in that wonderful spring way. When the sky was so blue it hurt my eyes. The armpits of my t-shirt were damp from doing nothing but sitting in the sun and reading The National Post. My Meandering Monday (now tradition) led me almost directly to the Black Camel on Roxborough avenue. Sometimes a pulled pork sandwich the size of a football is necessary. I snapped open a chilled Brio and let the bbq sauce polka dot the arts section of the paper. Caramelized onions, fontina cheese, pulled pork shoulder and sun kissing my face. I was want for nothing.

When my sandwich became more manageable and less-embarrassing to eat in public, I spread out my accumulated lists and post-it notes culled from the zippered pockets of my three shoulder bags, my jeans and my corduroy jacket.  I had a pile of ripped out restaurant reviews, recipes for Moroccan chicken, parmesan crusted chicken, tikka kebabs (and five others that I deemed too daunting), NOW’s list of Toronto’s Best Burgers, Varsity Theatre’s current movie listings and a few book reviews.

Meticulously, I copied each noteworthy item into my Final Draft of Lists. Here/there, I have a comprehensive Master list categorized into Books To Read, Movies to Rent, Quotes, Places to Eat, Possibilities (somewhat similar to “Opportunities,” but different enough to warrant a separate category), Blogs/Links, Go Here, etc. Yeah, there are more.

If someone wanted to steal my identity, this book would be the perfect Coles Notes version of me. As I worked through my pile and tore appropriate things in half for recycling, the gentleman nursing a coffee beside me asked, “What are you working on so industriously?”

I think I blushed.

I began explaining my “work,” which was condensing my accumulated pile of things to do, eat and see, basically.

“Why do you do this?”

 I explained my tendency to read from several newspapers a day, Oprah on occasion (with guilt, but still), five other magazines…and, that I liked to keep a list of all the things in one book.

“Have you always made these lists?” He was clearly fascinated by now, and leaned in with the furrowed brow of Barbra Walters in deep-listening mode.

I didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, actually.” I have always been list-y. Birds I’ve seen, places I’ve travelled to listed by year (in case I’m on some weird game show of my life and have to give a correct dated response), wine and appetizer lists for impromptu dinner guests. Everyone does this, no?

I found myself telling Albert (because he felt the need to introduce himself if he was going to continue with his prying questions about my “quirk”) about the evolution of my lists. All the while, I felt like my conversation could be something of interest to Hoarders-type reality programming.

“Well, when do you think it all started, exactly?” Albert sat back and brought the paper cup of coffee to his lips.

I took him back to 1984 or so, when I was ten-ish. (Already it was beginning to sound like a Sophia of Golden Girls fame set-up–  “Back in Sicily…” But I was back in Brantford, in our 3 bedroom ranch on two acres with a rail line splitting the land between the tall pines and the pond. I told Albert about how I had great plans to own my own natural history museum one day, and at age 10, I had begun cataloguing my display. I had groundhog skulls, jars of baby opossums and bats in formaldehyde, fossilized stones from Rock Point, flicker feathers, cicada shells and skunk cabbage seed pods that looked like small grenades.  My museum was going to shame the Royal Ontario Museums paltry natural history display with the shedding taxidermy chipmunks losing more fur and eyes each visit.

Circa age 10, my mom was working at a law firm as a secretary and would bring home the electric typewriter on occasion. While I was in awe of my own museum collection, I was in greater awe of my mother’s ability to type 346 words a minute. We fought over that electric typewriter, eager to become lickety-split typists like our mom.

My first typing assignment was a hard copy list (of course!)of my museum collection. And then I did inventory of my stuffed animal collection and some of the fashions I had designed on paper for the bears. In addition to my career as a Museum Curator, I had lofty thoughts of being a Teddy Bear Fashion Designer. Years later I decided to simply go with the gay part of fashion designer, and leave designing to the pros. But I didn’t tell Albert that part.

He laughed when I said I would listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown on the radio each weekend—and I typed out that list too.

“It’s all a bit obsessive, don’t you think?” Albert asked, grinning like a damned Cheshire cat.

Of course it’s obsessive.  I buy the same things at the grocery store every week. Do I really need a list? My roomie, Kelly, frequently mocked me for writing down “RUN” on my daily list. “Jules, as IF you’ll forget.”

When I was re-reading journal entries from my stint in the Costa Rican rainforest, I laughed to see that I had made a list of New Year’s Resolutions (the greatest list of all!)—and that half of the resolutions were on my 2010 list. I still (apparently) want to do a Polar Bear Dip, hike the West Coast Trail, take a cake decorating course and the Cornell orinthology course, visit Salt Spring Island and learn more about beekeeping.

I finished my sandwich and our conversation drifted to travel and Africa. “Did you make your lists when you were in the Congo?”

I didn’t.

“Shouldn’t that tell you something?”

Of course it should. Albert was introducing me to my epiphany. Was it because I was so satisfied in the Congo by volunteering at the chimp sanctuary, that my mind was able to rest? Was that it Albert? Was it that I didn’t have the same reading material available to me (largely because it was all in French)? Is list-making a sign of restlessness?

Why was I making lists all the time? I have 55 books on my To Read List, 43 Possibilites, 21 Dreams, 22  Movies (PLUS the Thirtysomething box set), 11 To Do’s (crossed off Venezuela and eating frog legs at least), 11 Places to Eat, 32 Places to See—and you get the overwhelming gist.  I have more than enough shit to do, and adding to it isn’t helping.

“Do you have a Bucket List too?”

Amazingly, I don’t.  Albert was really perplexed.

It occurred to me a few days ago, that since my conversation with Albert, the 89-year-old retired librarian with a love for Black Camel coffee and insight into stranger’s lives, that I had subconsciously stopped making lists.

I just stopped. I was inadvertently overwhelming myself and have decided to re-channel the clarity of my Congo state of mind.

Albert gave me his business card as we parted ways. It’s homemade—he has neatly printed his name, address and phone number in capital letters in green and red marker. I love its simplicity.

 More than that, I love how conversations with strangers can reshape you. Just like that. And I’m not even going to write that down to remember it. Well, except here, for you to read. And put on your list.

Black Camel: http://www.blackcamel.ca/about.htm

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Unlisted

  1. I don’t do lists. I don’t take notes either. I become overwhelmed if I do and I seem to lose the plot.

    I wonder if you didn’t do lists in the Congo simply because the amount of choices there was limited. I honestly believe the amount of choices we have in our ‘modern’ lives is too mindboggling. I don’t do that well with too much choice and so I now try to limit choice by shopping in smaller stores, ordering things online, and avoiding large malls like the plague. Recently I read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and it was interesting because he talked about choice. People will often do a lot to increase their options (i.e. choice) but in fact freedom to choose sort of causes unhappiness (because you are always wondering if the other options would have been better.)

    And the mention of Casey Kasem brought the image of Dunkin donuts on sticks to mind (my brother and I used to eat them in the car on the way back from church on Sundays while listening to the countdown).

    Interesting post. Enjoy being listless. hahahahaha. And don’t be tempted to add the book I just mentioned to your list. 🙂

  2. Why is Albert never there when I drop into the Black Camel? Oh, well. It was a pleasure to meet him here. And I never would have pegged you as a teddy bear fashion designer.

  3. Mag

    Great, as usual. Reading this I realized I make lists during periods when I’m feeling creatively under-confident. As though the list-making would start an engine that would lead me to fulfillment. I make lists instead of doing the things I really want to be doing.

    This is a link to an article I read 2 weeks ago about the tyranny of lists; not as evocative as yours (for me, anyway) but still pithy.

  4. Kay

    You sure make reading a pleasure.

    You dredge up all these great memories of family and being young and living in Toronto.

    Albert is a good example of the “smirk of knowledge” that getting older brings us. We really do sit back and watch you young’uns fuck up and scramble around trying to find the answers. It’s entertaining.

  5. Lynne Brodie

    Hi Jules,
    Very insightful as always, and makes me rethink my obsessions with “to do lists” as well. I do have an Albert in my life but he is worse than me with lists….. 🙂 guess I need to find one 30 years older…and…….. when are you taking me to the Black Camel???

  6. Dee

    Hi Jules!
    I was equally as compulsive but not about lists. For many years, starting at age 11 when my parents split, I kept a journal of all the boring minutiae of my daily life. I didn’t have an Albert to illuminate the pointlessness of my labour but, a few years after my husband and I divorced, I realized I needed to adopt better time-management skills if I hoped to survive juggling work and college. So, after 40 years, I quit documenting my daily existence. And it felt good to let it go. Now I marvel that I ever engaged in what seems a bizarre and pointless pursuit!

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