Listing

Abe the Cat, Kafka, Johnny Cash, My Father, etc.
“I become passive, overwhelmed, immobilized. I elude myself, my purpose defeated.”
ListingChapter: On Writing & Not
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T hursday morning, a little after 6 AM, Skeptic bolted up in bed with a garbled cry of anger and frustration that had nothing to do—not this time—with “freaking out” about home school.  This was about Abe, our old, fat, loving, psychologically aggressive cat, who often wakes us with guttural groans of feigned starvation and, when we do not respond quickly enough, pees on the radiator.

Before coffee even, I add “vet” to my list of things to do.  Abe is a difficult patient, “VBC” (very bad cat) written on his chart, and so a trip to the vet is no simple matter.  I add “cat case,” as he no longer fits the one we have.  I “write”—this is an unwritten list, as most of mine are, it floats in my consciousness—“Anti-Icky-Poo” and “Prozac?” I feel my free time being consumed, literally being eaten away.

My lists are both help and burden.  They ground me in reality but sometimes the listing takes the place of the doing.  I simultaneously pursue and am pursued by my lists; it’s like a perpetual boxing match in my brain.  “Taxes” darts, I lunge for “steak, potatoes, salad,” get pummeled out of nowhere by “papers x32,” and then unleash a potential knockout “blog post,” but don’t step into it sufficiently and it’s only a glancing blow.  And then come the body shots to my better intentions—read, write, be mindful the joys of daily living—and I am on the ropes, gasping for breath, flailing away at an attacker I can’t quite get a bead on.

Life is happening too fast.  Things are fleeting in real time.  The school year is wrapping up, or it certainly feels that way.  My last day of teaching is in two weeks (!); final paper guidelines have been distributed, my work is mainly done.  Happy days!  I like my job fine but work is work and summer is summer:  beach, barbecues, baseball.  I am, however, quite sad that year one (there will be a year two FYI) of home school is ending.  There are so many things we have not done enough of, things we haven’t even gotten to yet.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . . We all grow old . . .

I plan to make a home school checklist, a task that has been on my master list for weeks now, in the hope that the very process of delineation, like planting seeds, will bear fruit, that giving form to the formless will make things feel more possible.

I come from a family of list makers and so have long been both drawn to and wary of them (lists).  One of my younger brothers, an old man at ten, used to keep a list of “projects” to complete during our annual summer beach vacation:  Galley burgers, beach walk, basketball at the farmers market, beach barbecue, penny candy, Risk.  My mother used to plans meals a week or more in advance.

Many years ago, just after my father had recovered from a “coronary incident”—well before 9/11 and kids, when “43” seemed old—I wrote a poem called “Listing” about my father’s obsession with that very thing:

My father wills peace of mind
writing lists in order
to reduce stress and alter perspective

Pay Master Card.  Confirm lunch.  Dress
Socks.  Call M.  Check umbrella
coverage.  Meditate?  Black scrawls

on blue-lined yellow pads.  He wants to be
an architect, a world of line and context,
but claims no regrets.

In a world made strange
by progress and disease
my father wants me to know that glass is harder

than wood, that wood is harder than bread,
that he’ll eat my mother’s pot roast
on the night before the fast

no matter what the doctor says,
that somebody has to pay the rent,
that he has not given up hope

and nothing is ever nothing.

A list can serve well, it can free your mind for bigger and better things, or not.  A list can be a necessary aid or a destructive crutch.  When I’m planning a dinner party, for example, or organizing my week of teaching, lists work.  Perhaps this is because I know that if I forget to buy the pomegranate molasses or don’t re-read a section of The Sun Also Rises before class, life goes merrily on.  When the stakes are high—family, home school, my intellectual engagement with the world through books and writing, the changes I want to make in my own life—lists have no hold on me.  I become passive, overwhelmed, immobilized.  I elude myself, my purpose defeated.

I have lists of quotes, acronyms, ways in which Kafka is “a mirror of tomorrow,” annoying Facebook posts, reminders for Skeptic and the boys, Red Sox trade possibilities and line up adjustments, recipes and restaurants, web links.  One list, still “active,” includes Hamantaschen and “boiled dinner,” though Purim and St. Patrick’s Day are long gone.  I have lists titled “etc.” and “misc.” and “?”.  My list of lists goes on ad infinitum.

As Johnny Cash did for his daughter Rosanne, I would like to leave my kids with a list (or two or three), though I’m not exactly sure what it is I want them to know.

I have a list of child-rearing books that I meant to read years ago, in preparation for becoming a parent.  The same is true for home school:  books to read, people to call, websites to visit.  I’ve spent a little time checking out these sources of other people’s ideas, experiences, and caveats, but hesitatingly, as if I truly believed that ignorance might be bliss.

I have a list of books about lists!  Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay; Liza Kirwin’s Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum; Robert E. Belknap’s The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing; and Francis Spufford’s The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature.  If I ever write any of the novels on my list of “novels” [to write], I expect lists to play an important role.

SchoolLess and I have used lists, in various forms, and with mixed success, to help keep us organized.  SchoolLess’s personal lists include, but are not limited to:  daily tasks and events, music to practice, music to download, bubble teas, and Torah parshas.  He’s trying to be more consistent and systematic about listing.  As his life gets more complicated and more independent, he has found lists to be more helpful and necessary, but also intimidating and tension inducing.  I would like to help him learn to use lists productively.  A list can be a form of appropriation, a diss to self.  “If I don’t finish them,” SchoolLess says, “they make me feel like a loser.”

Like the word “cleave,” so adored by the poets for its dichotomous nature, meaning both “to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly” and to divide,” “to separate,” the word “list” also has a contradictory nature, if not by definition, then certainly in the way it figures in my life.

A list is most obviously a gathering together, often in a series, of related, more or less real, “things”—actions, dreams, still lifes, book titles, street names, ice cream flavors, fears, measurements, the contents of a backpack, whatever you are at this very moment seeing or thinking about.

There are a number of interesting archaic meanings of list, by the way, but they are too numerous to get into here, where the usage I am most interested in is verbal: “To lean or cause to lean to the side.”  For me, the solidity of a list is often inextricably linked with this sense of listing, of imbalance, the inclination, the tilting, away from stability.

I both love and hate lists:  can’t live with them, can’t live without them.  They put me at ease and they cause great consternation.  They help me remember and they cause me to forget: out of mind, out of mind.  They make my life easer, my mind less encumbered, except when they don’t.

On my most immediate list, to be attended to in the interstices of my day, as I try to finish this post before SchoolLess’s 5 PM baseball game and our subsequent departure for Boston (Fenway Park on Patriot’s Day here we come!):  checks, taxes, shave, horseradish, chametz, laundry, call Looney (the elusive one), feed the cat (the fucker), post reminder re no class Monday.   (Nota bene:  this cancellation because I am traveling, if perhaps in a roundabout way, for the Passover holiday).

The list that looms largest is the home school list.  The list of things I want, or perhaps need, to happen in the next two months. So let me end, for today, with this, a public promise to publish that list in a forthcoming post (Good Friday a good bet).  I will remind myself (and you) of all we have done—it’s easy to forget what has been accomplished; reassurance, if not congratulations, are not out of order, if I do say so myself—but I will also discuss what still needs to be done.

These things need to be done for SchoolLess first but for me as well, a somewhat fraught calculus.  SchoolLess needs the year to be good.  I need the year to be great.

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