McCallum: The ubiquitous “To-do” list

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(HOST) Hearing about President Barack Obama’s impressive to-do list has commentator Mary McCallum thinking about her own – and the differences between them.

(MCCALLUM) As a librarian I check books in all the time, and occasionally a little something tucked between pages falls out to surprise me. Most of the time it’s an improvised bookmark made from a cash register receipt or an old playing card. There have been occasional photos, usually fuzzy candids of children in generic backyards or a family on vacation. Once, a black and white portrait of a small blond girl from the 1940s slid out onto my desk. No one claimed it.

Recently a list on lined paper from a small memo pad fluttered from a book. it was someone’s "to-do" list. Being a veteran list maker myself, I was drawn to read what someone else felt compelled to record as worthy tasks. The line-up was mundane yet oddly fascinating: "call Myrtle, do correspendence, scrub bean bag chair, measure windows, jobs for Hank, call Linda re sewing machine," and ending with "jog" and "garbage out."

I have always been guarded about my own lists, so reading someone else’s felt like prying. It’s not that I fear my lists are too personal, rather it’s the dullness of the items on them that edge me toward privacy – while entries like "drop dry cleaning" and "stack firewood" are important, they do not, alas, reveal the shape of a glamorous existence.

In addition to my daily updated "to-do" list, I keep other special focus ones. I’ve got separate scraps of paper that remind me of books to read, films to see, phone calls to make and topics to write about. Then there’s the list related to my professional life: return co-worker calls, print that meeting report, and order supplies for upcoming class.

But I am put to shame by my friend Ron’s twist on lists – and his zeal. In his wallet at all times is a letter-sized paper folded to a tiny square, dense with miniscule black font. A few highlights on this catalog are important lock combinations, his wife’s clothing sizes, running records of vaccinations, passport numbers, the location of the best parking spot in New York, and how to find an address of a Manhattan crosstown street. Discussing listmaking with him leads to exclamations of list subcategories and working spreadsheets that stay home on the computer.

Ask any list addict how they feel when they lose their list. I’m reminded of a children’s story in which a frog becomes so dependent on his daily to-do list that he’s stuck when it flies out of his hand on a windy day. He doesn’t know what to do next, so he goes to bed.

Happily, I can still perform adequately without my list. I just yearn for it to appear more interesting. Wouldn’t it be a grand day when entries like "pick up milk" and "buy dogfood" were joined by "refine quantum physics theory’" and "solve crisis in Mideast."

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