Sick in bed last week, I finally read Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s account of Paul Farmer’s work in global public health, specifically Haiti—it is a fast-paced, wonderful book—and I discovered with pleasure that Farmer, like me, not only fastidiously keeps daily lists of to-do items, with little checkboxes beside them, but sometimes will do something that’s not on the list, realize as much, then go back and add it to the list anyway, mainly for the satisfaction of checking it off.
A list, a record, a docket. A list is a number of things tied together by essence, by theme. Written down on a piece of paper, or keyed into a computer, or kept on a calendar, inside a hardback, on a Post-It note stuck to the bathroom mirror. Lists, for me, process so much of life, I don’t remember a period when I didn’t use lists. Grocery lists. To-do lists. Book lists. Friend lists, to remember which person lives where if I’m visiting a city. Lists of the brand names of fireworks (“Bomb of Heaven Singing,” “Jumbo Christmas Missile” – those are from a wonderful Jay Hopler poem), or titles of books I haven’t written yet, or the expensive kitchen equipment I’ll acquire if a money tree grows in the yard someday. Which came first, a list or me? I should probably ask my mom.
Wikipedia has a list of lists of lists; as they say, I feel seen.
I remember my first day planner in high school. It was the size of a large paperback. You could buy accessories for it, segment it with tabs, make doodles in Chemistry class. Most importantly, I could go forward in time and jot down things to remember later—a pretty revolutionary thing for me that freed up much mental space, realizing I didn’t need to worry about certain things now. That day planner became my most important thing; carrying it around, I felt adult, I felt purposeful. Eventually it was replaced by small notebooks I carried around in my pocket, then a couple Palm Pilots, a couple Blackberries, three iPhones thus far. If anxiety derives from a future not yet known but worried about, lists, at least for me, provide calm.
I’m writing this on Thursday morning. Today’s list has sixteen to-do items remaining. I’m halfway to lunch, I’ve ticked off six boxes. Time to go check off one more.
Publishing sidebar: The Quarterly just published a Q&A I did with tennis champion and commentator John McEnroe. We spoke over Zoom last week—McEnroe was in his apartment in Manhattan for the U.S. Open—mainly about his teenage angst and temper. Here’s a bit I found funny, I’m the one speaking in bold:
One thing when people think, when people think about “John McEnroe,” the persona, is what’s essentially now your catchphrase: ‘You can't be serious.’ When did you realize it had entered popular culture?
You know, I really only said it once on the main tour. That was 1981. I was 22. I played another 11 years. It literally turned into…
If I went through one day where someone didn't say it to me, it was amazing.
To this day, it’s like that. For 25 years I played on the seniors tour. I'd go out, play pretty well, hit some great shots, and people would be like, “great, whatever." Then I’d go out and say, “You can't be serious!” And they’d be, “Okay, fine, we can leave now!”
You can find the whole thing over here.
Finally, one nice thing about having a life partner who occasionally searches the web for your name so you don’t have to: we just learned that my latest nonfiction book Everything Now is back on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list! Wow, incredible.
As ever, thanks to everybody for all of the support.
What the what? A (mostly) weekly newsletter by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin of (very) short essays about things he finds beautiful.
Rosecrans’s new book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, is available from Bookshop, Amazon, or your local shop. Check it!
Any other books mentioned in this newsletter are featured on a list at Bookshop.