I now confess: I’m a compulsive list maker.
My friend Danny often teases me about it. He once said that if something ever happened to me he wanted my signed copy of The Ants and my Lists. His point is worth honoring: the reason I haven’t written (or for that matter, read) The Ants may in part be due to the multitude of distractions on my lists.
And mind you, they are lists. I start one. It gets filled to the edge. I start another. I misplace that one so I start another. So these lists of duplicate mutually distracting items litter my office.
It’s a good question. I’ll take a stab at it.
1. I’m Seeking Order. My house growing up was in absolute chaos. I’ve told some people stories, but I think it might be hard for most folks to imagine. Junk and trash everywhere. At times dog shit covering the kitchen floor. No one ever cleaned up. No one did much of anything. I had no set bed time, no meal times, often times not even meals. In that environment it was hard to keep even my thoughts straight and so early on I learned that a list could provide at least the illusion of structure. I remember over spring break in 5th grade I approached my friend Leo with a schedule for everything we would do and what time we would do it. He was baffled. Why do we have to have a schedule, he asked? It’s Easter vacation.
He was right. And yet I didn’t see it as at all weird.
2. No filter: From the very beginning the sheer number of things that would land on that list were near infinite. In a world without structure and rules, all things are necessary. And all things are possible. So on any given day in 6th grade, my list might include: clean the kitchen, vacuum the house, edge the lawn with a pair of hand scissors, buy groceries, do homework, explore the canyon, ride my bike to North Park, read Les Miserables, and make a present for mom. I had no criteria by which to differentiate between grownup stuff and kid stuff. In 7th grade a friend once asked me what I was saving my paper route money for. I’m going to buy a refrigerator, I answered.
And there was no distinguishing between important stuff and non-important stuff. It was just one big soup. Everything needed to be done. My mom’s stuff. My brother’s stuff. My stuff. And it was all possible because there was nothing or anyone to say it wasn’t.
3. Incented to be a generalist: Feral creatures are opportunists. You don’t know where the next meal is coming from so you take what you can get. I was too young, though, to distinguish what was truly necessary for survival. I started reading company financial reports in 5th grade because (and I swear to god this is true), I figured I needed to know how to manage money. This information, I thought, might one day be useful. So my floor was littered with Huck Finn, Tolkien, notes on scientific experiments I should complete, those financial reports, word searches, a half eaten omelette, recipes I might want to cook, a Scientific American issue devoted to number theory, and Readers Digests. I grabbed whatever came in front of me. And mind you, there’s no one in my life to set boundaries, to perhaps say it’s not necessary for a nine year old to be reading financial reports or, as the case was, trying to understand periodic functions.
4. DP thinking: Displaced Persons – folks who’ve been displaced from their homes and consequent emotional stability – tend to become packrats. I love DP’s – In my twenties and thirties I spent a lot of time with emigres from Latvija and Russia and Germany – in part because I could identify with them.
We all were afraid of loss. And physical objects or pieces of paper become mnemonics for those things we were trying to hold on to. If I lost the piece of paper, I would in turn lose the emotion or idea that I associated with it.
That’s why I still have my record vinyl. And certain New Yorker’s from 1992. It’s a very interesting sickness.
And it’s also why, in part, I’ve been buried by my own lists. If I lose the list, or even an item on the list, I stand to lose another small sliver of my self.
And that self, defined early on by loss, cannot bear it.