Lists III

“Lists” (pt. 3)

I used to make lists of the year’s top movies, albums, books, and television shows, until I realized that no one else cared.  It’s basically the same epiphany every graduate student should have unless they are happy with being the least-liked person in the room: if everyone in the room is asleep except you, you’re the one who made them so.  Not to mention that the phrase “I’ve made a list, do you want to see it?” hasn’t worked since Moses, and even then I bet the Israelites weren’t overly enthusiastic.

A person’s interest in a list is probably in direct proportion to the list maker’s authority (or the publication that list maker happens to work for), so mine were interesting only to me.  It didn’t stop me from showing them to people though, and it took awhile before I realized that the expressions people made upon hearing of my plan for a lively debate-style evening were not that of interest but placation.  The same expression one wears when observing the futile attempts of friends to make their kid do some cute trick[1].  The same expression I saw from Ms. Wilson.

Of course, Nick Hornby has covered much of the same self-involved, male, ineffectual, navel-gazing material in books like High Fidelity, so there’s not a whole lot else to say about those kind of lists (we’ll call them “lists-that-show-how-you-waste-your-life lists”) except to say that I don’t make them anymore, because with three kids I don’t have as much time to read, watch, or listen to anything like I used to[2], and because I am doing my best to act like a normal human and not a pathetic, overweening hipster.

The lists that I make now are almost exclusively about what I have to do that day, week, month, or year.  They are boring, endless, and almost identical from one small notebook to another.  I feel, in a very real way, that they define everything that is good and bad about me as a teacher, father, and husband.

Here is a sample entry from Monday, August 30th:


-Deliver TEA Contracts

-Email Lane Library

-Observe Shannon 3rd Period

-PRIDE Meeting 3PM


Home: Make Lunches, Straighten, Dishwasher, Exercise, Feed Cat

Here is a sample entry from Thursday November 4th:

-Make Copies


-Observe Shannon

-TEA Meeting

Home: Exercise, Straighten, Dishwasher, Make Lunches, Trash

A few things to point out here: first, Shannon is a student teacher and I’m her supervisor.  I am not watching her for the sake of watching her, which would be weird.  That said, if I did engage in such pursuits, I would probably still have to write them down.  Second, our cat ran away between August and November.  It lives with neighbors now; oddly, we’ve never approached the neighbors to retrieve our cat nor have they approached us to return it.  I’ve never heard of such a thing before, and yet I’m not bothered in the least about the arrangement.  Strange.

Third, and what I really want to talk about, is this: notice that with the exception of “trash” I do the exact same things at home.  I picked two random days.  The stuff I do on those two days is the stuff I do every day.  I still have to write it down.  If I don’t write it down, it does not exist, will not get done, and the zombies will win.  I’d argue that the items I do for school are, if I were ever to codify and graph them, very similar from week to week and year-to-year as well.  Not surprising–we’re all hamsters on the wheel, though why I still feel the need to jot down my very entrenched routine is a mystery perhaps only eclipsed by imagining that I will learn more about myself if I turn it into a spreadsheet.

In a recent blog post for the New York Times, John Allen Paulos strives to find the difference between stories and statistics and understand the human need to have both.[3]  I have little to zero opinion on what he uncovered, mainly because it’s not really applicable to this essay; however, he mentions a statistician’s tool that I find interesting:


A drily named distinction from formal statistics is relevant: we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there. There is no way to always avoid both types, and we have different error thresholds in different endeavors, but the type of error people feel more comfortable may be telling (John Allen Paulos).


The insight interests me not so much as a statistician but as an obsessive individual.  I am terrified that I might “fail to observe something that is there.”  I am a walking, talking Type II error, or at least I live in mortal fear of becoming one, and so I force myself to document, from the reams of data that are thrown into my path in a given day—life, not to put too fine a point in it—a system that lets me establish and understand the mean, mode, and standard deviation of everyday existence.

When I am given instructions, whether in person, by phone, or on email, I must write down the task in the small notebook I carry with me.  If I’m at school I also put it on my computer calendar in case I’m attacked by a bear and lose my small notebook.  If for some reason I am without my small notebook[4] I actually write a list of things to write a list about when I locate my small notebook.  I am simultaneously the most and least effective person I know, I guess, and yet I rarely, if ever, forget to do things[5].

There have been times when I’ve been asked to do a favor for a colleague—pick up dinner, cover a class, talk to an administrator—and I’ve written down who, where, and when in my notebook.  I’d like to point out that this is exactly what we instruct our students to do to make them more organized.  But when I do it, the colleague more often that not looks at me like I’ve just told them I have the clap.

“What, you need to write that down?”

“It’s not you, it’s me,” is usually what I say back, but it is them.  What they’re implying is that I think so little of them that I need a written reminder in order to help them with something.  I can see that, but in fact my need to write it down is just the opposite.  I’m writing it down because I care enough to not forget.  I hate when people tell me they’ll remember something.  They won’t.  This is a supercilious and superior attitude, I’ll admit, but I’ve been screwed too many times by too many people with too many tasks and not enough sense to organize them in the most basic organizational format ever conceived by animal, man, or god[6].

Caring means being there for them, and doing things for them.  By extension, caring for yourself means being there for you, and doing things for yourself.  You take care of your business, because your business touches upon, affects, and helps the business of others; you help with the business of others because there will be a time when you might need their help to take care of your own.  Both are so obviously important that they seem silly to even write down.  This is fundamental, golden-rule shit.

And yet, and yet…I can’t neglect to mention the corn of the entire issue: a list maker is by nature a fetishist, and a fetishist is only in it for himself.

We, and I mean list-makers, have what seems to me to be a compunction or even talent or hell, just say it: obsession with compartmentalization.  We analyze and reduce a task to its constituent parts.  The plan is the payday.  We’re the same ones who are giddy during the strategy sessions in Iron Eagle but board with the climax.  We love to start a project, but we’re pissed when we have to sweat balls to actually implement it.  Conversely, we love to cross shit off.  We love when it’s done.

The middle part, the actual doing-it part, sucks.


[1] Never in the history of mankind has a child performed correctly in the situation.  I’ve been on both sides—frustrated ringleader and bored audience member.

[2] My wife would disagree vehemently with this statement.

[3] I’m sure I’ve irredeemably misread Paulos.

[4] Which hardly ever happens unless I’m in the shower.

[5] My wife would disagree vehemently with this statement.


[6] After re-reading the previous sentence it is obvious that I’m kind of a prick about this, but seriously, how hard is it to write something down?   Put it in your phone or Blackberry; write it on a cocktail napkin.  Hell, write it on your cock, but take at least three seconds to note that what I need is even marginally important to you, even and especially if it’s not.  It’s called recognizing the basic humanity of the creature standing next to you.


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