AWOL from the enlisted life

Once you start making lists, their tyrannical reign over your life becomes a fate worse than disorganization.

Published February 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I'm nothing without my lists. Oh, I admit I slack off a bit during the summer months, sneaking items like "Apply Gold Rush polish to toenails" onto my home to-do list and actually misplacing my office list somewhere in my "in" box under back issues of Entertainment Weekly (book research, I swear) for weeks at a time. But with the summer clothes laundered and packed (Item No. 6 on Home List) and the school bus doorshissing open, I crack open a fresh "Things to Do" pad from my personal stash and vow to toughen up. As a working mom, making lists is the only activity I know of that's guaranteed to keep me sane and drive me crazy simultaneously.

At any given time, I'm working two or three lists. I'm deeply passive-aggressive with my office list, where I cannot bring myself even to enter the most hateful tasks: itemizing expense accounts (digging out the restaurant receipts and taxi vouchers that have yielded their carbon-copy secrets to the silty bottom of my purse), writing overduebook flap copy ("adjective, adjective and adjective, this guide is indispensable reading for anyone who verbs"), calling scary literary agents. To this one I bring some feeble attempts at time management gleaned from books I've edited over the years; I officiously separate the "to do" from the "to call," organize relevant phone numbers next to the names and refrain from returning the receiver to the cradle between dialing, thereby shaving precious seconds to apply to more important tasks, by which I mean computer solitaire.

The home list is almost always deceptively short. The simple word "library" may connote cerebral strolls through the stacks but is in fact a frantic search under kids' beds and under seat cushions, then a painstaking match-up between dozens of borrowed books and the computer-generated due slips. "Caldor's" means a trip to middle America hell, where I'll be forced to wrestle a five-foot-diameter kiddie pool through a narrow check-out lane, navigate a sullen gamut of employees in search of the elusive "rain check" or ward off flying elbows in the pitched battles known as "Rubbermaid Days." Certain long-term projects are simply too painful to discuss, let alone list, such as organizing the "photo dump," where family snaps have gathered unceremoniously for the last five and a half years, waiting futilely to be enalbumed. (I've postponed this so long that basically I'm reduced to counting the candles on birthday cakes, remembering which Halloween costumes my kids wore and which years they were likely sporting teething rashes in order to date the photos.)

I always compose these home lists at night before I turn in because whatever I don't write down insinuates itself into my dream life, where I might find myself simultaneously teaching calculus class in the nude and shopping for Sesame Street vitamins at a CVS pharmacy. If I'm too exhausted or lazy to write down the next day's instructions for the baby sitter, a benign direction like "drop Jake off at gymnastics" haunts my nightmares as "drop Jake off cliff" or something similar.

It was my printer hubby who thoughtfully ran up for me a gross of "Things to Do" pads, enough to last me until my retirement in 2024. These suffice for work, but my home lists are created on the back of unopened bank statements, kids' smiley face-bedecked homework (I'm sure you treasure your children's efforts, possibly even frame them; they're toast in my house) or department store receipts.

My artistic-cum-pragmatic husband introduced the concept of placing squares rather than numbers to the left of the items, which can then be filled in with a flourish of a check mark or "X." I like to pad my list the way some folks pad expense accounts, front-loading it with easy, "X"-able items, such as calling girlfriends to dish or checking store hours, to give myself a cheap thrill of accomplishment. (Apparently I'm not alone; my friend Camille has been known to head off her lists with "1. Make list" and to stuff the ballot box with items completed even before the making of said list.)

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The mother of all home to-do lists seizes every opportunity to bud off into more specialized progeny. My most rebellious offspring, the grocery list, is a consistent failure. In a sure sign that I need to get out a whole lot more, I am able to visualize with great precision every aisle of my local store, and I prepare my list by mentally walking up and down the aisles and jotting down needed items. Unfortunately, I always either leave this list at home or somehow fail to read it through carefully until after I've made it into the checkout line, so that I have to go back again and again, like some sort of disorganized addict at the methadone clinic, even though I try to convince myself that I'm really more like a gay, serially shopping Parisian housewife minus the string bag and baguette.

The vacation list is no vacation. Buying the tickets, reconfirming the reservations, reserving the ride to the airport, packing the kids and love objects of the moment ("But I wanted Pandy, not Panda! You packed the wrong one!"). The clock really ticks on this one, and omissions can have serious ramifications (such as Dehydrated Kitty Syndrome, which we narrowly averted last year when I forgot to put "hire cat sitter" on thelist). On the other hand, a jolly endpoint awaits, and there's something enormously cheering about the fact that I've placed "glue-gun daisies back onto Becca's sunglasses" on a par with "reserve car" and "finalize Watkins contract before departure."

Like millions of other moms, every fall I soldier through the back-to-school lists. Teachers mail these treacherous items, often decoyed with apples, pencils or other school totems on brightly colored paper, a week or two before school begins, when the entire world is conveniently away on vacation. As a result, I'm banging my cart into the other bleary-eyed moms at the dreaded Caldor's once again, this time in the wee hours, each of us poring over a list like it's the Rosetta stone. I'm convinced the teachers compose these with a kind of scavenger-hunt mentality, hoping to spare us, I suppose, from the boredom of a simple trip to the five-and-dime. The latest unfindable item was a particular brand of two-pocket folder in six specific colors, necessitating a canvassing of seven different stores to round out the rainbow. My kindergartner's list was more like a Price Club inventory, with requests for bulk napkins, cups and wipies along withthe obligatory items; when did we move from the simple pencil case to outfitting a battalion for siege? (My best friend's list for her fifth grader was a minor Proustian madeleine, failing to include for the first time a request for crayons. Can we all agree that life without crayons is tragic?)

The calendar, of course, is the list's wicked stepmother. I meticulously transfer all important dates from the school calendar (the diabolical-for-working-mom "planning half days," the "wear sneakers" days for gym) to the master calendar (which at our house is extremely strong on Polish saint's days -- an annual gift from a cherished former boss -- but frankly a little shaky on traditionally major events such as Labor Day). I can't help but feel that this is time I could have spent profitably investing in the market or translating Icelandic sagas. Every fall we are abruptly yanked from the soothing palette of the occasional pencil mark on the wall calendar --"Barbecue at Sharon's" -- to a grim gray palimpsest suddenly filled with piano lessons, soccer practice, gymnastics, religious instruction, PTA meetings, birthday parties and more.

And if we're talking September, we're just minutes away from the Halloween costume shopping lists, the Thanksgiving guest lists, the Christmas and Chanukah card lists, the holiday gift lists ... If I ever manage to get to the bottom of one of my "Things to Do" sheets, it's only because I need fresh blank space for the next list of chores.

The tyranny of all these lists, of course, is that they're promises made to be broken, guilty reminders of how I'm falling down on the job. But who's making those promises, after all, and who's laying on the guilt trip? A moment's reflection reveals that, despite my better angels, apparently I'm still subscribing to that "you can have it all" credo. And once you think you can have it all, it invariably follows that you've got to keep track of all you have. This way lies madness; lists are just another species of self-inflicted wound. And the only way to get rid of all those paper cuts is to cut the paper.

I could start by being a hell of a lot more selective about what makes it onto those lists in the first place. I suspect there's a lot I could simply let go of completely without perturbing the Earth's revolution. I could delegate more -- physically and psychically detaching those lists and pressing them on other responsible souls. But what I really need is a kind of self-parasitizing list designed to eat itself alive:

  1. Resign from any organized activity prefaced by "steering" or "coordinating" unless it involves yachts or cool boot-purse combos.
  2. Put seed catalogs directly on recycle pile.
  3. Hide Internet access capability from all grade-school teachers.
  4. Overcome guilt at not planning to buy or sell overpriced fund-raising nutty bars, wrapping paper or "student literary magazines."
  5. Hand shopping list to significant other, with subsidiary list of helpful definitions, such as "fruit" (e.g., excludes caramel-coated items from which sticks protrude), "entree" (e.g., excludes cocktail franks) and "dairy product" (e.g., excludes chocolate).
  6. Cancel subscriptions to any magazines with cover lines that include the words "new you," "makeover," "thighs" or "buns," retaining onlythose with cheery word jumbles.
  7. Stop making lists.

Wait, let me write that down.

By Elizabeth Rapoport

Elizabeth Rapoport is an executive editor at TimesBooks/Random House. Her last story for Salon was How many working fathers does it take to screw in alightbulb? She is a contributor to "Mothers Who Think: Tales ofReal-Life Parenthood," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, forthcoming from Villard Books in May.

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