Still Learning from Our Parents
INTERESTING STUFF – 13 September 2014

Kicking the Bucket List

I stole that title from a blog post at The New Yorker this week because it perfectly expresses my sentiments on the topic.

I didn't like the 2007 movie and even more, I dislike the cultural adoption of the idea itself even if it has become one of the few things enthusiastically shared by young and old generations.

My objection to bucket lists is that they are too superficial. They reduce experience, even life itself, to grocery list status – items to be checked off one after the other, then forgotten like an item on a Buzzfeed listicle. Experience – and, certainly, life – is much more important than that.

Rebecca Mead has written a couple of books, contributes articles to many international newspapers and magazines and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1997. Reading her work is always a pleasure and often instructive.

So when Ms. Mead takes up the topic of bucket lists, who am I to try to match her skills of which I am both jealous and a fan. Instead, I will report to you the reason you should pay attention.

Her article takes as its starting point President Barack Obama's side trip to Stonehenge earlier this week after which he told the attendant press, “Knocked it off the bucket list right now,” before returning home to the United States.

I recall cringing when I read that remark. It was way too cavalier for my taste after visiting a place (particularly with the privilege of doing so unencumbered by tourist masses) that holds so many ancient mysteries. As Ms. Mead writes:

”Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge - or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara - is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.

She continues:

”This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention - an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé.

“The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?”

Bucket lists seem to me to be a youthful pursuit – or ought to be. The older I get, the more I crave a greater understanding of the people, places and things I encounter, and these days I seek the time to contemplate them as I was too impatient to do when I was young.

Ms. Mead concludes:

What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death?

“These places, experiences, or cultural objects might be those we can only revisit in remembrance - we may never get back to the Louvre - but that doesn’t mean we’re done with them.

“The greatest artistic and cultural works, like an unaccountable sun rising between ancient stones, are indelible, with the power to induce enduring wonder if we stand still long enough to see.”

Yes. Exactly. And although I have given you a few important passages from Rebecca Mead's essay, you should go to The New Yorker to read the whole thing, to take the time to appreciate her graceful writing and her thoughtfulness, whether you agree about bucket lists or not.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Past


Is there no end of criticism of President Barack Obama?

I am so sorry--I know you weren't going there but I just feel I have to say--I share Faith's sentiment.

Back on topic---I do agree--you are right on and I never thought about it but--bucket lists have no depth--

Another vote in favor of Faith's comment . . . It's long past due. Barrack is not running for President - he is the President! How do you spell respect?

At last . . . someone else who also finds the whole bucket list thing superficial - that's all really, other than thank you.

I too very much like Rebecca Mead. And I like what she is saying here. As to Obama--I am sure that remark was made in jest, to be witty or something. If anything, given that he is criticized constantly for being aloof, intellectual, etc., I suspect toss-away lines like this might serve to increase his Everyman status?

But to the point. I have noticed, in terms of travel, that I more and more want to return to the places that I have been to before. There is the temptation of the new, always, but for many reasons I am most content to go back to places that I actually already knew pretty well.

Same with museums wherever I am, including at home--I cannot imagine not going to see things again and again.

Partly because of that--I can be comfortable in the
German city of Leipzig, where I have been many times,precisely because I know my way around. I have friends there. I love feeling sort of at home. I love taking the walk I take every time I am there, stopping at bookstores I love, plazas I remember, etc. But I have the the sense of depth there rather than breadth: I like learning more. In fact, I like sitting here right now in chilly St. Paul imagining this and that street, the magnificent church where Bach was the organist and everything else, the lovely restaurants, the wonderful university,the house where my friends live that now has a "Ruth-Ellen's room," called that, because that is where I sleep.

This is not quite what you and Mead mean, I know, Ronni, but it is what I thought of when I read your piece.

Hope you are feeling better today.

Actually, Ruth-Ellen, if it is not exactly what Mead and I are talking about, it certainly is an extension of it.

It reminds me that during the 40 years I spent in New York City, whatever new exhibit I went to see at the Metropolitan Museum, I made time always to stop in the Egyptian section and at the Frank Lloyd Wright house.

At the Modern, whatever else was of current interest to me, I always visited the design floor.

And so on in so many place around the city.

Your comment also reminds me that although my love of New York City is almost primal, it is also that I have the kind of comfort there you describe for Leipzig.

I think we're talking the same thing.

Yes, completely agree "stand still long enough to see" - as often as you can. And put those bloody cameras away.

I agree. The ides of bucket lists astonishes me: why would people who are old enough to know better go racing from place to place, when they have the luxury of time to reflect and enjoy the peace and satisfaction of old age?

I disagree with you on this one, Ronni. Just because something is on a bucket list, it isn't necessarily superficial or fleeting.

Although I don't have a formal bucket list, I would love to do a painting well enough to hang it in my home...I took the classes, now have the equipment, picked out some subjects, tried a few pictures and occasionally putter. How about my Great American Novel? Although all my published work is non-fiction (news, features), it is not unreasonable that this is preparation for the novel that I start and stop. And that quilt on the imaginary list...well, I now have a few squares completed.

Using the example of President Obama and Stonehenge, this may be a monument that he has considered or admired for years, culminating with 10 minutes to actually be there in person. Maybe the only chance he will ever have.

I look forward to Mead's essay. Your blog reminded me of Daniel Boorstin's critique of tourism in his 1987 book, "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." Google led me to this 2002 article by Judy Cohen, "The Contemporary Tourist: Is Everything Old New Again?"
As for referring to President Obama's remark, I think our current environment is especially challenging for those of us who support our President but at the same time disagree with some of his policies as well as his comments (as they are often reported as soundbites). Thanks again Ronni for your thoughtful commentary and helping me decide what's worth reading.

I loved Mead's article as I sometimes felt bad about not having a bucket list.

Having just spent a few days in Leipzig, I get what Ruth Ellen was talking about. At first sight I wasn't sure, but after a few days the city spoke to me.

I did not realize that bucket lists are just that...a list. I have never made one, and perhaps you put into words what I must have been thinking.

In general I'm not much inclined to lists, bucket or otherwise; I guess I'm too disorganized for that kind of thing. Which is not to say there aren't a FEW places I'd like to go or things I'd like to do in the time remaining to me (I'm 67), only that I'm not obsessed by them.
The comments above about revisiting familiar places, e.g., museums, brought back to mind that even when I was a kid, I loved going to see the La Brea Tar Pit fossils at the LA County Museum--this was before the fossils got their own museum at Exposition Park--seeing them was like revisiting old friends. I never was bored from seeing them another time.
Finally, a dimly-recalled witticism from long ago: a tourist is a person who drives 2000 miles to a beautiful place and has his picture taken standing beside his car.
Good usual!

Tim, thanks for invoking the La Brea Tar Pit! I remember my excitement as a 3rd grader in Washington DC reading about the fossils in my Weekly Reader. My curiosity stayed with me and I finally visited the tar pits 20 years later, and try to stop by whenever I'm in L.A. Long live the Smilodon (aka saber-tooth cat/tiger) in our imaginations!

There are a number of places I'd like to visit, but only if I can go to each and stay for a week or two. Long enough to become familiar with the area, take in the atmosphere, and really absorb the place. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite. Those are not drive-thru experiences. As it is, I've moved to be near Rocky Mountain National Park so that I can continue to explore and know better the area where I've vacationed all my life. It's about immersion, not ten-minute photo ops.

"What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death?"

Gets my vote

Many decades ago for a class I was taking I had to write a list of 100 things I wanted to do before I die. It was a fad going around at the time and I see the Bucket List idea as just a modern-day version of that assignment. A few years ago I found that list I had written so long ago and I wasn’t surprised that I could check off over half the things I listed, and I could discard another quarter that I was no longer interested in doing. I see bucket lists as just a tool to help you focus on what’s important to you in terms of goals, ambitions and secret dreams so you don’t drift way what time you have left on earth----whether you’re eighteen or eighty. David Menasche’s Priority List exercise is the same kind of tool, abbreviated and streamlined. I agree with SusanG. (above) “Just because something is on a bucket list, it isn't necessarily superficial or fleeting. “ A bucket list is only as good as the person writing it; if you think it’s just a list of places to visit and check off then, that’s the kind of Bucket List you’ll make. I wrote a Bucket List a few months after my husband died and looking at it now, I realize it was about pulling myself out of the vacuum his death created. The point is a Bucket List can and should be anything you want it to be. Among other things, my newest Bucket List contains “live to be 100” and “enjoy life to the last breath.”

"live to be 100 and enjoy life to the last breath."

What Jean said.

No bucket list here, just grateful to be alive having survived cancer for eight years now. And just as grateful to be with the man I love. No bucket list needed. As for President Obama's comment, I perceived his remark to be narcissistic in line with a narcissistic, arrogant personality and related behaviors. I do not consider this perception of mine to be disrespectful.

I did not have a Bucket List when I was young, but I had a list of things I wanted to do and to see. I'm fortunate that I have been able to fulfill very many of them in 8 decades. I was surprised when my 15 year old granddaughter talked about her bucket list. It was not superficial, but showed some thoughts about what the world offered to her in varied experiences. Undoubtedly , as I have eliminated some of my "must see or do" list for various reasons, I imagine that she will as well.

I too agree with Faith's comment about the President. The job is tough enough and it's petty to begrudge a person a brief respite from the weight he carries.

I am sorry, but I have a different take on this subject. First of all, I loved the movie "The Bucket List" with Jack Nickolson and Morgan Freeman. Partly, because I think both men are great actors and did a good job.

Of course it was improbable that two old men hospitalized with cancer would have the strength to tour the world, but it was just a movie and it spoke to my dreams.

If I had the energy after being told I was terminal that is exactly what I would do. I would start with the Taj Mahal..

I love to travel more than most anything and have had my own bucket list (although I didn't call it that) of places I wanted to see since I was a teenager.

I do not find that a list implies a quick visit to one spot after another. It is a list of dreams that you hope you can make come true. If you have time to immerse yourself in the place, lucky you. Not everyone can take a week (or sometimes even an hour) to enjoy each place,

I do not think that an off hand statement about crossing a place off of a list necessarily implies that the person doesn't want to visit again. And this is especially true of a President who is on a very tight schedule and ten minutes is undoubtedly hard to squeeze in.

Just sayin'.

For the past few years, I've found myself just wanting to stay home. I have no bucket list, but in the past couple of years, since no longer working for pay, I have enjoyed getting back to reading, gardening, volunteering with various community organizations, reading, doing small things I had never done before (like raising Monarch butterflies this summer)and reading. Going away is expensive, tiring, often uncomfortable, and requires coordinating far too many things. Learning about people, places, cultures and the universe through the written word is transcendent for me. Also enjoying some wonderful DVD's like several of Ken Burns' series, some excellent nature series, cosmology, and many others in the comfort of my own home is about as good as it gets.

What can I say...I want to see something for myself so I can think about it at some future moment. Call it a point of reference. It was not some deep ethereal experience just an interest.

I don't think that Obama was guilty of anything at all. Unfortunately he may have offended people that carry around little grudges...bucket list? Really?

Having said that, I need to say that I do not have a bucket list and probably never will. My dreams are not that set in stone. Some of the most wonderful things have happened because like President Obama, I decided to take a side trip to a place that sounded very interesting.

It must be very hard to have to defend every movement of every day.

Ronni et al..Thanks for the rich food for thought I've learned to savor by reading your blog late in the day.

I have a dream list of sorts with some urgency fueled by rapidly deteriorating eyesight. My nature requires action more than creativity. With a near horizon of shrunken boundaries looming, I've resolved to see and do as much new (to me) stuff as presents itself because I may have, like my mother, too many years during which I can only relive the memory of those dreams fulfilled.

Example--I took the car ferry across Lake Michigan on a recent road trip in my little motorhome. Next week I'm taking the train from Iowa to Calif. Just for the heck of it.

Knowing there's a finite limit of time left to experience novel, pleasing and, maybe, exciting activities motivates me to keep alert for ideas for fun and adventure -- before it's too late. Would knowing that life as you're accustomed to it will soon end make a change in how you live the present?

Tarzana, you sound like good company on a train trip. Would love to join you.

Maybe the president was just bemoaning the fact that he had only a few minutes to spend at Stonehenge.

I'm with Tarzana, I want to take a train trip just for the heck of it. I've got to figure out some time to do it, though, and then plan ahead and get the tickets. See, that's the reason I don't have a bucket list. Too much planning.

I'm with Tarzana and Charlotte; Call if you want to form a caravan.

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