Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One Thing You Must Do Before You Die

     I hate the phrase "bucket list"— the idea of having a checklist of accomplishments and highlights you must do and see "before you die." Places you must visit, achievements you must reach. There's a certain grim conformity to it—a stations-of-the-cross obligation. The old top-of-the-class mentality translated to old age, one more hoop for you to jump through, landing in the grave on the other side. You must see the Blue Mosque. You must try the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's. 
     There's nothing wrong with having concrete goals—you'd like to climb Mount Fuji, or have a drink at Harry's Bar in Venice someday. And there's nothing wrong with trying to achieve those goals. But the implication that doing these things will add some kind of meaning to your life is dumping too much significance on what are in essence, exotic peak experiences.  You have to always keep in the back of your mind that even if you achieve these life pinnacles, you will not necessarily be transformed. Realize that your big deal dream might in reality not be such a big deal. My brother climbed Mt. Fuji. It's unpleasant. I've had a drink in Harry's Bar in Venice. It's small.
     Your life isn't defined by its high-points, unless you're Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon, and then the struggle is to not let your high point define and destroy you. There are only two tragedies in a man's life, to trot out Nietschze: the first is not to achieve your dream. The second is to achieve it. 
     Given the inevitability of those two tragedies, what seems to truly define a life well spent, is not gaping at the Taj Mahal, but nailing life's daily, small moments. They add up. They aggregate. How you feel every day when you open your eyes is a lot more important than being able to post pictures of yourself snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef on Facebook. An asshole is still an asshole standing at the summit of Mount Everest. Maybe even more so. 
Paragliding atop Rendezvous Mountain, Wyoming
     Besides, all lives are different. My bucket list would involve taking naps, raking leaves, drinking coffee, reading books. I wouldn't actually create that list, never mind force it on you, because the things that embroider my life could leave you flat. Most likely they would. And visa versa. Rafting the Snake River is fun. Must you do it before you die? Well, that depends on whether you like water. The whole idea of offering up a template for another person to measure his or her life by is ludicrous. You know whether you've used your time well or not, and if you don't know, well that should be number one on your list: figure that one out. "Tell me," as Mary Oliver writes, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
     Or don't tell me. There is an element in bragging in these bucket lists. You're not doing things for yourself, but to impress other people. How sad is that? If you achieve your life goals, and don't tell anybody, do they still mean something? People don't pay $500 a ticket to see the Rolling Stones, they pay $500 a ticket to tell their friends afterward what great seats they had.
     Maybe that's too cynical. Not that I'm against telling people things, obviously. Do fun stuff, show off to your friends about it. I'm there too. But I don't pretend that I'm having a transformative life experience while I'm doing it. That's an important distinction.  
     Why couldn't your bucket list be things you failed to do? Your life can be just as easily defined by what you avoided as by what you attained. Dante never got the girl—Beatrice married someone else and died. He never got a chance to return to his beloved Florence, never mind be crowned with laurels there. But he made do, writing his great masterpiece.
     So my list would include things I'm never doing: I'm never putting a Christmas tree in my living room. I'm never having plastic surgery. I'm never wearing cargo shorts and shower clogs to work. I consider those life-affirming accomplishments.
     And my list, by necessity, would be endless; there will always be more places to see, more books to read and to write. The idea that you can get some portion of them, in a methodical way, seems to be willful denial of how much you won't. Besides, the peak experiences tend to be things you don't plan, that just happened. The family was in Monterey. Ross saw a brochure for whale watching, so we took a boat and went whale watching. Was it fun? Sure. Do you have to do it? No. I would say it depends whether you are in Monterey or not.
     Focus on what you can do right now. My bucket list would include dozing under trees -- never enough of that in a lifetime. It would include walking the dog whenever the dog wants walking. The great achievements that make up our lives are not those that require we travel to India, or big down payments. The point is not to impress people. The point is to impress yourself.  No matter how well-travelled, no matter how adventurous, we finish our lives having done practically nothing, having met practically no one.  The number one item on my bucket list is to understand and accept that.


  1. Congrats on three goddamn months of posting every goddamn day. An impressive feat.

  2. Thanks Eric, and I appreciate all your support. I was going to do some kind of "State of the Blog" yesterday, but had that shut-down piece in mind. October is getting off to a solid start. I wish I could figure out all those readers in Indonesia though.

  3. Three goddamn months? Amazing. Today's column is a gem. I have been having these same thoughts recently. Thanks for writing them far more eloquently than I was thinking them. I read it outloud to my wife.

  4. Nice take on the bucket list. I paraglided as well, when I was on a hiking trip in Austria, but it wasn't something I planned on doing. Walking the dog everyday is better. :)

  5. I sometimes found it hard to come up with topics weekly let alone daily. You're damned prolific Neil!

    1. I've sort of made this bed, now I have to sleep in it. I'm fortunate, in that I have a wide range of interests. And it helps that I do one week a month themed -- fiction in August, "stuff I love" in September, and this month, I'm leaning toward "People I admire" or "Favorite buildings."

  6. Great post, Neil. I would go even further to say that bucket list fundamentalism chokes out serendipitous moments (like paragliding in Austria), turning life into one of those over-planned, "perfect" weddings that everyone hates sitting through.

  7. Zorbing & ziplines are on my list.

  8. Live Mas, and do something crazy..put up that xmas tree. 1 in 3 do it.

  9. Nah, Jews putting up Xmas trees are like people who crash the wedding receptions of people they don't know because they can't stand the thought of missing a party. It's not our celebration.

  10. I guess I just like that Zorn takes the first comment to acknowledge three months of every Goddamn day. These are scribblers, Goddamnit, and I am in awe, honestly.

  11. I am pro Bucket List for a completely different reason that impressing people I don't know. To me, it's a real pan and ink promise to myself that those dreams of mine - the craziest things especially - are going to be done. On the hard days it feels nice to know that I am NOT going to always put a sick kid first. I'm not giving up on rowing across the Channel but I haven't done it YET. I've been to 23 countries - most of them were on my List - because I want to be a citizen of the world and this helps me to view it as such.


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