Fort Myers Florida Weekly

Making a list, checking it twice




List making seems like a very basic human activity.

We make lists for a variety of reasons and occasions: grocery lists, to-do lists, New Year’s resolutions, supplies to purchase for the new school year.

In addition to making lists of bills I have to pay and people I have to contact for my work, I make lists of books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, as well as those I hope to devour in the near future.

I also have a bucket list of things I’d like to do or experience in this life. It includes moving back to New York, touching an elephant, and putting on a parka and feeding penguins in a penguin exhibit.

Our lists are very practical and personal. You wouldn’t think they’d be of interest to anyone other than the person who’d written them.



Yet I find myself captivated by Sasha Cagen’s book, “To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us” ($16, A Fireside Book). It’s a collection of 100 hand-written lists and short explanations of the stories behind them.

The book started as a magazine called To-Do List and a blog (

It’s not a collection of 100 grocery lists.

Apparently, we make lists for all kinds of reasons. One, by a 30-something grad student, is “Risks I Took That Paid Off (aka how to cheer myself up when I feel blue).” One person made a list of “Things I Hate,” while another wrote “Ten Reasons to Be Happy.”

Some are whimsical. One father kept his 7-year-old daughter’s list of supplies for an imaginary camping trip, written in blue crayon. The list, in its entirety: “flashlight, food, shos (shoes), bananas, blue crayon” There’s a short space, and then she’s written: “thats all.” I love that she felt bringing a blue crayon was essential. Maybe she was just in love with the color or, like me, doesn’t like to be anywhere without paper and pen.

Another list includes “do taxes” followed by “call cat psychic.”

Some lists are heart wrenching.

One daughter, who was taking care of her mother who had Alzheimer’s, found a list the mother had written while in high school or junior college: “Sayings to Live By.”

“My mom did use sayings like these with us growing up,” the daughter writes. “She was a very sweet, chipper person and tried to be positive in every situation … I found the list long after she had lost the ability to speak. It’s a treasure that’s now 50 years old. It’s the kind of thing I would run back into a burning house to save.”

One son contributed lists that his father, a rabbi, would write and put in envelopes that then went into his jacket pockets. On the first anniversary of his father’s death, the son opened the envelopes his father’s nurse had sent him.

“They were like ancient relics,” he writes. “All were written in his unmistakably beautiful penmanship, parts Hebrew, parts English. I realized he carried his whole life in his pockets … Whether or not these notes gave him a sense of control over things, I don’t know. I only know these envelopes are now precious to me. When I finished reading them, I put them back in one of his jackets. Every so often I pat them to make sure they are safe.”

In the introduction to her book, Ms. Cagen writes: “In a sense, our to-do lists are like diaries, only they’re the bullet-point version.

“Lists can be about anything — from flossing to finding a soul mate, from buying carrots to becoming whole. When we read other people’s lists, we uncover the range of meaningful and mundane things that are on their mind. Lifelong hopes and daily tasks mix together, and ‘organize sock drawer’ is on par with ‘get teaching credential,’ which is sometimes exactly how life feels.”

She calls it “everyday voyeurism,” a “rare window into (others’) everyday life.

“They are not only reflections of our mind states, they’re also often tools for action and decision making,” she writes. “They represent the conversations that we have with ourselves but don’t often voice to others.”

One man made a list of “10 Ways to Be a Better Husband,” while a young woman made a list of things she wanted to do before getting pregnant. A teenager’s to-do list included: “stop swearing, stop eating pork (unless in the form of bacon)” and “get left ear pierced a third time.”

The lists include New Year’s resolutions and lists of what someone wants or doesn’t want in a mate. One woman wrote 28 reasons to lose weight, another made a list of things wrong in her marriage.

Some are minimal and cryptic. One, titled “5 Happiness” consist of: “1. no work 2. book 3. sleep 4. food 5. money.”

Some of the list-makers are well known. There’s one by Chef Alice Waters of the things she planned to cook for a friend’s birthday, and one from former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto of films for his Bad Movie Club. Mr. Musto and four friends meet regularly to watch “movies that should’ve been good but weren’t,” he writes. “It’s an ongoing, evolving list which I started about five years ago when I realized there are so many bad movies out there that I had to catalog the best of the worst. The club is sick, ritualistic and much more fun than watching a good movie.”

According to a telephone survey of 1,000 people by American Demogaphics, 42 percent make to-do lists.

Ms. Cagen did her own online survey of list making, which she includes in the book’s appendix. She had 600 respondents. Of those who participated, 83 percent prefer to write their lists with pen and paper. (And there’s just something about seeing lists written in others’ handwriting.) Just over a quarter of them had made a “to-don’t” list — things to not do. Most (66 percent) cross things off the list, while 21 percent use a check mark.

And — this warmed my heart, because I thought I was the only person who did this — 50 percent admitted they added things to their list that they’d already accomplished, then crossed them off.

“The pleasure of reading other people’s lists is certainly voyeuristic, but also therapeutic, because there’s so much humanity in them,” Ms. Cagen writes. “We all wonder: Am I normal? Am I the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out?

When we only see other people’s polished exteriors, it feels like they have some secret we don’t. When we look at other people’s lists, we see that functional adulthood doesn’t come naturally to everyone else either.

“… Our lists reveal our secret selves. They show us as the hilariously imperfect works-in-progress that we are every single day. We’re all figuring it out as we go along, and we’re all much funnier, more neurotic and idiosyncratic than our finished-product versions of ourselves suggest. The evidence is in our lists.”

This column originally ran on July 30, 2014.

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