Tag Archives: writing

List Obsession

 

If I walked up to my 24-year old self and revealed that in 30 years, I would be obsessed with making lists, my youth reply would have been, “Did I get a brain injury somewhere along the way?” As far back as I can remember, I sought experiences for superficial reasons, especially if they would translate into stories I could tell to impress people. This (admittedly) selfish focus meant that I immersed myself in a chaotic world that stressed ego over character. Somewhere along the journey, that focus flipped upside-down.

What is vitally important to me now is order and kindness. Organization, neatness, routine, structure, service-all words that would have sent me running for the hills in the last few decades-I crave in a way I could have never predicted. I am not sure when the shift occurred; perhaps I morphed  gradually through the years after being married to a kind and selfless person like Kevin. I certainly was keenly more aware of the transformation in the months following our mutual job loss, and the recent pandemic likely contributed. After the massive life changes and extra quiet time, some self-refection and enhanced order was inevitable. And for me, order means making lists.

My new job as the administrative assistant to the director of the Georgia Cancer Center has locked in this list-making trend for good. Dr. Cortes is adamant about a high level of meticulousness and is accustomed to an exact process in his daily work. This trait is reasonable and expected of a successful Doctor and Scientist, and one that aligns with the environment I was seeking for myself when I made a career change. Any culture shock in the transition between the car business and the world of academic health care pursuits, while difficult, have been truly been suited to the new paradigm of my life.

My brain now works completely in terms of lists. As I work, I follow a checklist of activities I want to perform daily, even if I am only make small, incremental progress. The beauty of my day is that I am likely to be undertaking many different tasks from one moment to the next, but in a way that is ensconced in order. I methodically transition among tasks, documenting progress along the way, an obvious shift from the environment I cultivated in my past career, one I often compared to a juggling act, with plates crashing around me.

In addition to not wanting to forget a step in my day, I admit I also just enjoy the feeling of marking my progress on a list. A hugely daunting day, broken down into easy manageable chunks, becomes a pleasurable flow of one small victory to the next. I have daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, priority, pending, long-term lists and spreadsheets. I make lists for each day, lists for days off, weekend lists, grocery lists, lists of people I need to meet and lists of people I want to stay in touch with (a particularly important list right now).

Friends and family might not appreciate knowing that they are also part of a master list, but I would hope they see it as I do-that I care enough to want to make sure I don’t miss them in my ongoing communication. I strive to not let too much time pass without texting hello or letting them know I appreciate them or seeing how they are doing. When holidays approach, I am looking at the list constantly, making sure that everyone receives a small acknowledgement from me (including my friends at various businesses like the dry cleaners).

Finally, I enjoy thinking of my lists of favorite things. When I hear a song in my car, I consider including it on one of my many playlists. When I watch a movie that blows me away, I consider adding it to my preferred flicks. These lists are dynamic, subtly changing over time, but the core of them stays strong. Casablanca will always stay on the list of Angela’s fave films, Rick Springfield will always be considered one of the top musicians, David Sedaris is a permanent entry in my collection of treasured writers. Some others may fall off, join or re-join through the years, but for now, I have curated what I consider to be a Masterpiece List of Lists, and offer them here as much to have them documented for myself as for sharing with others. I am not sticking to just 10 anymore,  either. If I want to have 11 or 12 favorite songs, then so be it.  I consider them to be a significant statement about myself: as John Cusack says in High Fidelity: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like…books, records, films..these things matter.” Yes, they do. And for that, as well as many other quotable lines and intelligent performances, Mr. John Cusack has made it into one of my lists.

You will notice in my list of favorite books, The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande. I reference this book often, and did even before working for a healthcare provider. Dr. Gawande presents a compelling case for checklists at work, explaining that while our egos don’t like to think that we need a list for work that we do every day, our brains need that safety net, especially when the stakes are high. Pilots who have been flying planes for years can still get careless and omit an essential pre-flight procedure. Surgeons performing a repair they have done countless times can easily skip a life-saving protocol. Our brains spin too fast, our egos distract us, and we do not always operate on all cylinders…the opportunities for error are endless. The one cure for these errors is the checklist.

If I have a favorite list in all these lists, however, it is the last one-my list of most important quotes. My current focus quote is by Ram Dass: ” I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion-and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.” I suspect the shift from random adventures to thoughtful order is one of shifting priorities and general maturity. With clarity, I see the pages of my life’s story shift as I look back and realize the impact of my actions on others, and become less proud of my past and more hopeful for the chance to make amends and build character, seeking compassion for others and finding joy in kind gestures.

Let me know some of your favorite lists-do we share anything in common? The root of compassion is finding common ground and an easy place to start is finding things we all love the most. I would love to hear yours, and I here offer mine. Perhaps my 24-year old self should have learned to appreciate lists before madly chasing grand adventure. In the words of Gretchin Rubin: “Outer order contributes to inner calm”.

List of Favorite Movies

  1. Casablanca
  2. Shakespeare in Love
  3. A Little Chaos
  4. Beauty and the Beast (Disney version)
  5. XXX
  6. Moulin Rouge
  7. Darjeeling Ltd
  8. High Fidelity
  9. The Invention of Lying
  10. Grosse Pointe Blank
  11. The Longest Week
  12. Mulan
  13. Now, Voyager
  14. Truman Show
  15. Pleasantville

Favorite Songs

  1. Show Must Go On by Queen
  2. Show Must Go On (Moulin Rouge Soundtrack)
  3. Life is Beautiful by Sixx AM
  4. It’s My Life (ballad version) by Bon Jovi
  5. Northside by Tim Brantley
  6. Hold On To Your Dream by Rick Springfield
  7. 50 Ways to Say Goodbye by Train
  8. And So I Pray by Jem
  9. I’m Not Ok by My Chemical Romance
  10. Still Got the Blues by Gary Moore
  11. A Song for You by Ray Charles
  12. Comfortable by John Mayer
  13. Sonata in G Minor by Tom Barabas
  14. American Tune by Paul Simon
  15. Song for the Road by David Ford

Favorite Places to spend money

  1. Target
  2. Clinique
  3. Publix
  4. Hallmark
  5. Michael’s
  6. Stein Mart
  7. Dillard’s
  8. Art on Broad
  9. Book Tavern
  10. Barnes and Noble

Favorite Causes

  1. Miller Theater
  2. Georgia Cancer Center
  3. Golden Harvest Food Bank
  4. Augusta Symphony
  5. Leadership Augusta
  6. Child Enrichment
  7. Leukemia Lymphoma Society
  8. Friends of Augusta Animal Services
  9. Salvation Army
  10. Safehomes
  11. Heritage Academy

Favorite Writers

  1. David Sedaris
  2. Will Schwalbe
  3. Fr. Gregory Boyle
  4. Adam Grant
  5. DH Lawrence
  6. Atul Gawande
  7. Russell Brand
  8. Elizabeth Gilbert
  9. Joan Didion
  10. Anais Nin

Favorite Bands

  1. Queen
  2. Sixx AM
  3. Linkin Park
  4. Bon Jovi
  5. REM
  6. Matchbox Twenty
  7. Edison Project
  8. Styx
  9. Journey
  10. No Doubt

Favorite Singers

  1. Rick Springfield
  2. Jem
  3. George Michael
  4. Russ Taff
  5. John Mayer
  6. Stevie Wonder
  7. Tim Brantley
  8. David Ford
  9. David Owen
  10. Sade
  11. Edith Piaf
  12. Gary Moore
  13. Johnny Cash
  14. Babyface

Favorite Hotels

  1. Charleston Place
  2. Chateau Elan
  3. Margaritaville Nashville
  4. Vendue Charleston
  5. Hermitage Nashville
  6. Proximity Greensboro NC
  7. Ritz Lodge Lake Oconee
  8. Studio 154 Nashville
  9. Shamrock Ocala
  10. Four Seasons Whistler

Favorite Foods to Eat

  1. Cinnabon
  2. Shells and Cheese
  3. Takosushi Kevin’s Roll
  4. Guacamole and Chips from Caesar at Poblano’s
  5. Fluff (mine)
  6. Pancakes (mine)
  7. French Toast
  8. Lefse (Dad)
  9. Egg Breakfast Food (Mom)
  10. Lasagne
  11. Birthday cake

Favorite Books

  1. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  2. Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Gregory Boyle
  3. 10% Happier by Dan Harris
  4. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
  5. Selected Poetry of Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell
  6. Everybody Always by Bob Goff
  7. Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus
  8. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
  9. Naked by David Sedaris
  10. Give and Take by Adam Grant
  11. Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Favorite Songwriters

  1. Rick Springfield
  2. David Ford
  3. Paul Simon
  4. Richard Marx
  5. Billy Joel
  6. Jon Bon Jovi
  7. Elton John/Bernie Taupin
  8. Mike Shinoda
  9. Tim Brantley
  10. George Michael
  11. John Mayer
  12. Lyle Lovett

Favorite Actors/Actresses:

  1. Jason Bateman
  2. John Cusack
  3. Jane Fonda
  4. Judi Dench
  5. Morgan Freeman
  6. Emma Thompson
  7. Jim Carrey
  8. Nicole Kidman
  9. Ewan McGregor
  10. Renee Zellweger
  11. Adam Driver
  12. Adrian Brody
  13. Mark Ruffalo

Favorite Quotes:

  1. Choose being kind over being right, and you will be right every time. -Richard Carlson
  2. I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion-and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies. -Ram Dass.
  3. May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears. -Nelson Mandela
  4. Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. -Martin Luther King Jr.
  5. The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life. -Rabindranath Tagore
  6. Don’t just ask whether you are proud of what you’ve achieved. Ask whether you’re proud of how you achieved it. -Adam Grant
  7. It takes grace to remain kind in cruel situations. -Unknown
  8. The past from intensity to greatness passes through sacrifice.-Kassner
  9. Perhaps everything terrible is something in its deepest being something that needs our love. -Rilke
  10. The more simple we are, the more complete we become. -Auguste Rodin
  11. The objective of cleaning is not just to clean but to feel happiness within that environment- Marie Kondo
  12. The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, honorable, compassionate, to have made a difference. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Delusional Writer

I remember thinking I had writing talent when I was in Mrs. Alalof’s 9th grade English class. One day, while handing in one of my flowery essays, I felt a rush of confidence that my work would be one of the best of the stack. Sure enough, the graded paper was returned to me with praise of my vivid descriptions and creative vocabulary. At the time, my young distorted ego was quite impressed with itself, and I entered adulthood with fancies of my innate skills.

I realize today, however, that the praise had less to do with my talent, and more to do with the comparative apathy of my classmates, who churned out a bunch of words just to fill the page and be done with it. In my young writing days, I thought that details and big words could woo my reader beyond any concern for grammar or content. This is not unlike my step-son’s strategy of assuming that his charming talk can make up for a lack of effort at school. It’s the age-old style-over-substance trick, one that always catches up to you, sooner or later.

My epiphany came in my 30’s, when I asked a colleague to offer comments on an article I’d written. He was Mensa-level smart and severely critical of everything, so my young ego awaited the healthy boost it was going to receive when he offered rare accolades for my obvious ability. In truth, I was really only sharing it to impress him, since I had a little crush and was eager to show off. I didn’t really care about any suggestions for improvement, because the piece was not important and was clearly already amazing.

When the article was returned to me, however, I was devastated. It had been slashed with more red than a Halloween movie sequel. The Mensa-critic was kind enough to preface his comments with, “I’m only telling you this because you asked,” knowing enough to be embarrassed by the amount of errors in my work, but not enough about my motivation for letting him read it in the first place. If he shared my affections, he would have lied. It turned out to be fortuitous for my writing that he did not.

When I started reading the feedback, I realized his suggestions were quite legitimate and mortifyingly simple: I had made numerous sloppy mistakes. Had I proof-read the article even once, I would have caught most of them. Other comments were eye-opening to me, notes about efficiency in sentence construction that I had never before considered. If there is a way to say something that offers more clarity in less words, isn’t that a better approach? A whole new writing world was opened to me: the world of editing.

I began to spend time in this world, seeking to teach myself how to edit. I soon realized what Blaise Pascal meant when he said, “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but part of editing turns out to be fact-checking, as well.) I have yet to master the art of the edit, as evidenced by the fact that it takes me a good 4 hours to finish a decent blog, wearing out the “preview” button as I hone it down to the clean essentials. I finally hit the “publish” button, not because the editing is complete, but because I am exhausted and on the edge of vomiting if I read the same words one more time.

So, with continued practice, there is hope for my writing on a technical level. On a content level, however, there might be a teensy problem that is a little more tricky to overcome: personality. It turns out that you have to have one to be an engaging writer. I know there is a slight deficiency here, from spending a lifetime of being called “overly serious”, so I find myself with a late start on two levels.

Sometimes when I read an essay that blows me away -like David Sedaris, for example- it makes me want to abandon all of my own vague writing ambitions. David Sedaris has spent his entire existence both being funny AND practicing in a journal everyday. What hope is there for the rest of us? I admit to some similar feelings of jealousy and surrender towards a few of the writers on the Jezebel blog, which has a staff of confident, witty and articulate columnists. Do aspiring golfers feel this way when they watch Tiger Woods? Shouldn’t we have role models who inspire us to greatness? My role models inspire me to expletives and defeat.

In the end, I always come back to the advice given by my favorite poet, Rilke. (Or, as Lou Andreas-Salome called him, “the only poet”.) In his “Letters to a Young Poet”, he advises his protege to only write if he feels so compelled that he might die if he could not. This is really an overly-dramatic way of stating something we should all heed: only write if you have something worthwhile to say. We have to live a full life and develop a full self in order to have the content worth sharing. All of the grand words and savvy editing will not save a lack of heart and imagination. So for now, I will focus more on the living than the writing, blinded by my ever-present delusions of talent.