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INSIGHTS

The list goes on
By Robert A. Wilson |

IN HIS COPY of Hopalong Cassidy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jimmy Gatz, known later to his neighbors in East Egg and West Egg, Long Island, as Jay Gatsby, wrote a list of things to do. It was the list of someone who, even as a poor boy, had his own vision of escape. In that list we could see the beginnings of the belief he never lost “. . . in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.”



Rise from bed 6 a.m.

Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling 6:15-6:30 a.m.

Study electricity, etc. 7:15-8:15 a.m.

Work 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Baseball and sports 4:30-5 p.m.

Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5-6 p.m.

Study needed inventions 7-9 p.m.



All of which brings me to the role of keeping and maintaining lists to give some order and direction to the general chaos of our lives and the ability of lists to help us record those impressions worth remembering. What got me started on the subject was a book by a Japanese woman, Sei Shonagon, who was born about 1,000 years ago. The translator of the book, Ivan Morris, tells us that the form her book took-a compilation of notes, anecdotes and lists (164 in all)-was the forerunner of a Japanese genre of writing known as zuihitsu (“occasional writings, random notes”) which, he writes, “has lasted until the present day and includes some of the most valued works in the country’s literature.” We are to infer from the title, Pillow Book, that it was kept near where a person slept to record thoughts that came in the night.

What struck me was the ability of the form Sei Shonagon followed to help counter the general imprecision that afflicts so many of us in recording what our imaginations produce. This book is not-heaven forbid-one of those dreaded self-help books that instruct us in methods by which we might become our own best friend. The list headings from the Pillow Book are as provocative as the lists themselves. So I decided that, to get myself started in this new year, I would use some of the author’s headings with my own listings. You might try the same.



Things That Cannot Be Compared

●The muffled, diminished sounds of a city the morning after a heavy snowfall.

●The feeling a crowd receives from seeing a sportsmanlike gesture.

●The expression of triumph on a child’s face in an endeavor where triumphs are few and extremely hard-won.

●Shirley Knight at the memorial service for Richard Burton on August 28, 1984, singing a cappella from a hymn that Burton loved: “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and me/Calling, ’Oh sinner, come home.’ “

●Gene Kelly’s expression and grace while singing and dancing in the rain.



Things That Quicken the Heart

●Being at an opening-night theater performance where both the audience and cast share an understanding that this play has legs.

●John Updike’s description of Ted Williams’ last day at Fenway Park.

●Reading that even after 3,308 games and 23 years of professional baseball, Carl Yazstremski, a certain Hall of Famer, had written a reminder and taped it to the inside of his locker. It read: “In box with left leg and all weight on it. Nothing on front leg. WAIT. Stay back. Relax.”

●A comeback by a former great in anything.

●The last few minutes of Breaker Morant.

●A stable hand’s suggestion that the great racehorse Ruffian’s epitaph be “She died on the lead.”



Winds

Khamsin: The Arabic term for the hot wind that blows out of the Sahara. It could supposedly raise temperatures as much as 55 degrees in an hour. Bedouin tribal law permitted a man to kill his wife after five days of it.

●Those night winds whose presence and strength are only seen from your bed in tree limbs that seldom move.



Things That Give a Clean Feeling

●The smell given off by sheets as you take them off the clothesline on a bitterly cold day.

●A long run along a beach at dawn.

●The athletic stride of an unself-conscious woman.



Things That Should Be Short (This particular listing can be a wonderful release for spleens that need frequent venting.)

●Any speech accepting an honor. (Perhaps any speech at all.)

●Conversations with anyone who takes his cue from Leo Buscaglia.



Perhaps the oddest heading, at first reading, was this:



Oxen should have very small foreheads.



Sei Shonagon wrote: “Oxen should have very small foreheads with white hair; their underbellies, the ends of their legs and the tips of their tails should also be white.” Also, “I like a cat whose back is black and all the rest white.”

These headings and those of our own invention somehow help remind us to remember more carefully the unusual, the worthwhile or the bizarre. They can form a latticework to which our memories and impressions attach; that seemed to be the case in Sei Shonagon’s book. Or lists can provide a firm goad to our energies-and even a clear direction to a life, as in the case of Jimmy Gatz.

All of this is only intended to suggest an exercise, not to propose another Formula for Living. Here’s a final heading of my own that I’ve found useful, and I hope you might find it to be the same. It begins with the best example I’ve encountered.



“Definitions Against the Grain”

●When Tennessee Williams was asked to describe happiness, he replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”