In this way, prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.
– Italo Calvino
He had once come across one of those cheeky posters about life inside the offices of a humanities nonprofit. It said: “When you are young, you have time and energy, but no money. When you are middle-aged, you have energy and money, but no time. And when you are old, you have time and money, but no energy.” Was that the best you could hope for even if you considered yourself lucky? Having gone through a fair bit of the first two stages, he was frightened by how true this pop wisdom felt.
He had decided to have children a bit later in life, but then he hadn’t met the woman who would become his wife until he was in his early 40s and they didn’t get married for a few years after that. What had he done with the previous twenty-some years of adulthood? I suppose a good bit of his 30s was taken up in caring for his mother. His father traveled a lot for work and had to keep the job solely for the health benefits that covered his mother’s condition.
But all this would have been manageable had he not this urge to write; and thus, spend so much time avoiding the actual doing of it. This morning, he told himself he was going to spend fifteen minutes writing before he ate, showered, and headed off to the office. But the baby Maria had woken up early and his wife Laura had gone to bed late the night before having stayed up to soothe the baby. Teething. It was always some cycle or phase these little critters were going through. It’s really not pleasant growing up.
And so, he fetched her out of the bassinet, fed her a warm bottle, got dressed in the living room while she gummed a binky like a dog with a fresh bone, picked her up to return her to sleep, and was rewarded with that watery, semi-curdled vomit that only the quite young know how to gift wrap. Twenty-minutes late, he left for work, having written nothing, much less even gotten the sleep needed to be semi-productive for the day.
But it was always something like this. If it wasn’t the baby, the dog had loose bowels he couldn’t hold through the night. Or his wife’s weekend away with the girls got canceled at the last minute. Or the second he sat down to write, he noticed an odd discoloration in the ceiling steadily growing which turned out to be a watermark made by a leaking pipe requiring immediate attention. If he turned on the television, nothing happened–all was quiet for hours. If he attempted to write, especially if he scheduled it, all hell broke loose. One day, he even took leave at work without telling his family, drove to a local coffee shop, took out pen and paper, and found himself in the middle of some sort of petty larceny turned hostage situation (the result of which was him hiding under a table for 45 minutes as directed by an incompetent gunman, and spending the rest of the day at the police station giving a statement and being pressured by the locals to justify their officer’s lethal shooting of the gunman).
He used to tell himself that if it was just part of his daily routine, he would write regularly, but he had never been able to manage any sort of routine that lasted more than a few days, if that. Sometimes he wondered whether writing–or any art for that matter–was truly a luxury or a necessity. The urge was there. Like a hunger. Demanding to be served. Still, he only kept it alive by feeding it such scant rations at such infrequent intervals. Maybe the truth was that he had nothing to say and feared facing up to this. On the few occasions he did manage to write, he felt guilty. Guilty for not working on repairs to the house. Guilty for not visiting his parents. Guilty for not staying in touch with friends. Guilty for not paying attention to his own family. Guilty for writing so poorly. And when he didn’t write, he felt guilty for that, too. For squandering the time. For being too tired to write. For having nothing to say.
Tonight was the first night of the new writing class he had signed up for at the local college. He thought it might make him accountable if he was beholden to a teacher or a whole class with assignments and deadlines and such. He was both excited and nervous. He had made several contingency plans–backup transportation if the car failed or broke down, a babysitter on standby if Laura had an emergency or got stuck at work, several animal tranquilizers in his pocket should he need them all to sleep through whatever obstacles they might want to throw in his way. It was just a class, right? That’s what he kept telling himself, but it felt like a moment of truth. The kind of defining point where someone finally commits to a dream or gives up on it. Something definitive. He had written the directions down by hand. He had even driven there once over the weekend. It was only fifteen minutes from his house (possibly twenty-five in the worst traffic). He arrived ten minutes early, circled the campus once, drove around the parking lot looking for the perfect spot, and left himself two minutes to walk to the appropriate classroom on the second floor of Building H. He dropped his keys getting out of the car and used it as an excuse to re-tie one of his shoes. He silenced the ringer on his phone. And slowly walked to the entrance. He put his hand on the door handle but never did bring himself to open it.
When he arrived home a couple hours later, Laura asked: “How was it?” She was always so supportive of his efforts. Of everything, really. He wavered between making up something grand in praise of it or dismissing it as not what he needed or expected. Instead, he simply said: “I learned a lot tonight.”
Maybe too strong. Start out a little lighter.
Dear Piece of Shit
Wow. Not exactly what I meant by “lighter”. Compartmentalize your anger for at least the opening.
I’ll smash your face in
Where’s that book on anger management you were reading? Breathe deeply three times and count to a hundred before you say anything.
You deserve to be water boarded. But before that I’d like to peel your fingernails off using a dull butterknife.
Whoah, tiger. This isn’t getting you anywhere. Maybe start out with something positive or ask about the weather.
I hope it hasn’t been raining too much wherever you are–I know how that exacerbates the rash on your privates and makes you scratch like a baboon.
Again, not what we’re going for.
Burn in hell! Eat shit! And may you enjoy–
Stop, stop, stop! You’re going to have to find another way to address your self. And maybe today isn’t the day to attempt it.
That’s why death is so unfair–everything else we lose, we always have our bodies left, the palms to sob into, the thighs to hold us nobly upright on our hard chairs. Then death takes nothing but our body away.
– Queen of Terrors, “When I Think about You”, Robert Kelly
At age 5, Mitchell discovered his mother’s grocery list. Unable even to read it, he still fell in love. He made her read it to him forwards and backwards. He begged her to tell the story of how and why she created it. And thus began his lifelong love of lists.
He quickly burned through culture’s most common lists–from fire safety procedures like 1) Stop. 2) Drop. 3) And roll. To morality lists: The Ten Commandments, The Four Noble Truths, The FBI’s Most Wanted List. He delighted in the way vast fields of knowledge could be broken down into digestible lists: geography divided into the the seven continents and the five oceans; numbers listed as integers or even irrationals; words listed by function (oh, how his heart jumped at that long list of prepositions); the sciences had lists like chemical elements (ordered in that remarkable structure of the periodic table) not to mention the Constants (Planck’s, pi, the coefficient of friction, etc.); and there was no end to the number of lists he could make as an individual or enjoy about culture: Nobel Prize lists; all manner of top-ten lists; best of lists for every city or topic one could imagine; whole books dedicated to lists like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; things to be avoided like the Seven Deadly Sins or to be sought out like the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Lists reached into the afterlife: the Nine Circles of Hell or the Seventy-Two Virgins of Jannah to be rewarded to believing men (surely, they will be listed by name upon arrival). Order. Structure. Definition and definitiveness. A list could guide just as easily as open up debate. It could be holy or utterly ridiculous (Mitchell’s favorite example of this was his list of the Top Five Places to Put Bare Feet: 5) Under the dog sleeping beneath the dining room table. 4) In the sand along the shoreline early in the morning. 3) Upon the grass in the spring. 2) Under the covers next to his wife’s feet. 1) In warm mud–a pleasure he picked up as a child when a rain boot accidentally came off after a summer storm).
They were everywhere and codified so much of his life and they had a life of their own changing with time and history. Some grew slow like the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and others changed daily like Mitchell’s To-Do List (which would often itemize the making of other lists). Threes, fives, sevens, tens, and hundreds were the most common, but a random number might just grab attention for novelty’s sake or open up possibilities never before considered: The Forty-Nine Worst Style Choices (#35 was choosing shoes and a belt of differing colors).
Mitchell loved the practicality of lists from vacation packing lists (#5 was always his toothbrush; it’s position had come to be a superstition pointing toward a safe return) to the Top 25 Sex Positions listed in some women’s magazine at the supermarket checkout stand (#14 was one he’d never been flexible enough to attempt).
One of his most intensely private lists was called Things that Make Me Cry (an evolving list to which he was unable to give any sort of rank or order):
Other lists he had no trouble sorting by preference such as his Top Five Favorite Actresses:
Although Mitchell’s health was still good, he had begun feeling his own mortality lately. Thoughts turned toward his own end–its unpredictability, an ominous sense of its approach. And the only way he could think to deal with this was by creating a Bucket List (that whole “kicking the bucket” phrase still seemed so peculiar to him). Thanks to his love of lists, he had lived a full life–tried the best of so many things, constantly evaluated that which was important. It seemed premature at age 47 to be making such a list but it also felt right–and despite his love of lists, it was intuition that guided Mitchell and not logic.
There were to be only three items on Mitchell’s Bucket List:
- Make & Give an Essential’s List to My Wife (include all bank and insurance accounts and any other important info she might need upon my death).
- Walk the Trail of Tears in the Southeastern U.S.
- Forgive my Father for Turning His Back on My Brother.