Tuesday, July 24, 2018

On The Futility (and Absurdity) Of "Bucket Lists"

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Joe Queenan's WSJ Sunday Review piece, ('It's Time to Kick The Bucket List', p. C1) was so spot on it made me wonder if he possessed a preternatural sixth sense to sniff out humbug - like I do.  As he puts it in the subheader:

"Americans have become obsessed with having big experiences. But bungee-jumping in Madagascar or shooting baskets with an NBA star won't really make your life complete."

Indeed.   Also, as Queenan is insightful enough to point out:

"The term 'bucket list' in and of itself is problematic. Technically, it refers to having one foot in the bucket, to being at least near death's doorstep. Unfortunately, the word 'bucket' is corny,  rustic, uninspiring, down market. No, make that hideous. List isn't much better."

And expatiating on his main complaint:

"Like American Youth soccer and country music, bucket lists started out as something harmless and amusing before turning into a nightmare. Officially the concept derives from a 2007 film about two, doomed old coots competing with one another to polish off a list of personal dreams before the Grim Reaper carries them off.

But as so often happens in this otherwise great country, something that started out as a joke became a clinical disorder.  It's as if every woman who watched 'Thelma and Louise' suddenly decided it was a great idea to drive a car off a cliff.

Today, everyone with a few bucks to spare seems to be fixated on bucket lists. 100 places to see before you die. No, make that 1,000 places. Fifty restaurants to eat in before you die - no, 200. The top 111 bucket list ideas, 15, 378 Top -Quality bucket list suggestions."

And, of course, he correctly notes too many items are obvious and generic, i.e. the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Mount Fuji, the Aurora Borealis.

But his most cogent point is how all such lists carry more than a whiff of desperation, or "last chance-ism" eliciting his question: "Why didn't you write that tongue-in -cheek novel about vampires masquerading as hedge fund managers (e.g. earlier)?  Or, why didn't you go to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis earlier, instead of ending up with a case of "way too much to do and far to late"?

Queenan then isn't so much against the notion per se as against the contrived nature of modern bucket lists, including the "monkey see, monkey do" aspect. As he observes (p. C2):

"Seeing Robert Plant live in concert in 2018 doesn't make up for not having seen Led Zeppelin in 1968. Attending a pallid recreation of Woodstock in 2016 is not the same as having sat in the driving rain at the real gathering back in 1969."

Which drives the point of why so many bucket lists these days have become "obsessive, expensive and painful" - because too many are trying to have experiences they should have had much earlier, and in a more authentic form. So now, when it's almost too late - and they are really faced with their own finality, mortality, they want to do it all - even if many are just pale imitation experiences..

I've never entertained any "bucket lists" but basically over the course of my life chose experiences when and where interesting ones became available. For example, while attending Loyola University - New Orleans,  going to see Simon and Garfunkel perform at the Fieldhouse in 1966, as well as Peter Paul and Mary, then Donovan in 1967.  I didn't wait until the 2000s to attend performances by their aged counterparts, say for some "50 year PBS anniversary" special. Ditto with going to see a live performance of Steppenwolf in New Orleans, in 1969.

Going to South America had also been on aspiration from early, when I used to page through images of Jaguars and jungles in National Geographic. I did go in August, 1978-  not as an artificial stop - but as part of a teaching workshop for which I'd volunteered. Nope, didn't get to see any Jaguars but did see plenty of jungle in the drive to and from Timehri Airport in Guyana.

The observation of the Aurora came naturally while I was based at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1985-86. Then again, when Janice and I visited on our own in 2005.

We were also afforded the chance to go dog sledding, just south of the Arctic Circle, e.g.
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And taking a flight- seeing trip to Mount Denali, e.g.
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Switzerland was always a place we loved, especially its sublime mountains, so no surprise we took three holidays there during our prime working years. We didn't wait until we were retired, aging and unable to go up and down the mountains!
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At Piz Gloria, Schilthorn, Switzerland, 1978.

 One connection we were never able to make - for one reason or other-  was to join Janice's cousin Rich on one of his African safaris, to South Africa and Namibia.  But hell, we did the next best thing, after Janice's company (Nucletron) gave her a free trip to Disney World on her retirement. The gift included air fare and $2,000 cash to spend, so we opted to stay on  site and go on the 'Wild Africa Trek" safari.  No, I agree it wasn't exactly like the real thing, but we did get to see a number of voracious carnivores and other wildlife up close and personal, e.g.
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Some of the scenes during our 'African safari'  at Disney World.

Some may howl with laughter at the ersatz Disney safari, having done the real thing in Botswana on their actual bucket list, but as Queenan admonishes (ibid.)  :

"You don't really need to swim with the sharks to feel complete.Swim with the Manatee instead, you'll live longer. . Cross anything off your list that could conceivably involve crossing paths with the Taliban or needing to get your meniscus repaired. I don't care how gorgeous Machu Picchu is, at a certain age the local microbes could be fatal to your health."

Adding, with a definite pragmatic undertone:

"Nobody really needs to go falconing in Mongolia or riding on the back of a nurse shark in Alaska for their life to be complete.  They need to raise kids who won't grow up to hate them. Or take care of their aging mother and making sure she gets a nice sendoff."

So what started the desperate bucket list obsession? Who knows?  But one suspects it has a lot to do with increasing recognition of one's mortality - and that the time which one has to do things- especially after passing the midlife mark -  is not a limitless quantity. This is most likely to emerge when one has entered retirement or is approaching it.  In this sense, the  once benign and aspirational bucket list soon transforms to a series of desperate,  "do or die" onerous demands. At that point such list is no longer useful but infused with futility and yes, absurdity. I would also wager that once lifetime aspirations are postponed until past middle age this is almost certainly to happen. But lo and behold, the dug in deniers will merely spout denunciations of "jealousy" or other bollocks.

Queenan acknowledged that  mentality near the end of his piece, i.e.  "we all risk being shunned and ridiculed if we do not have a fully operational bucket list" but then adds for good measure, "a proper bucket list should be short and selective, it's a bucket list not a laundry list."  Clearly hoping to impart a note of sanity and temperance.

But in a temperate and rational world, the bucket list is superfluous, and rigidly pursuing one is the province of the confirmed chucklehead or delusionary.   These are the "too little, too late" activity lists driven by vanity, jealousy, artifice or desperate obsession in the face of one's end, not realizing it all smacks of futility in that mode.

Rather than squeezing umpteen artificially decided actions into a few years near the end of life, it makes more sense to be mindful of novel experiences when they are afforded over one's whole life. That means, however, that we experience our lives in the moment and take the opportunities for enriched experiences when they arise naturally. Not just after the  fact, or when we perceive the hands of 'Father Time' winding down.

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