"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Making Lists–The Illusion Of Order In A Chaotic World

Bess Anthony was an organized woman.  She could make sense out of an impossible basement, reconfigure an attic so that joists, beams, and dormers worked to the advantage of storage, reclassified the silverware into usable categories, and plan every family event from baby showers to Christmas.

This uncanny ability was both learned and instinctive.  Bess came from a practical, organized family; but had a natural talent shown at a very early age.  She knew the subtleties of color to such a degree that at three years old she could organize her crayons exactly according the spectrum.  Her room was never chaotic, always picked up; so much so that her parents worried about obsessive-compulsive behavior, very rare in children, but not unknown.  

The most famous case involved Gretchen Zoll, a Bavarian girl who lived in the early 19th century and who had so meticulously and rigorously organized her room and her behavior that even the slightest dissonance upset her – a hairbrush a millimeter out of line, a wrinkle in her bedcover, a spot on the ceiling.  She seemed to have been born with some congenital twist which obliged her to order things, to perfect her surroundings, and to create an inerrant world.

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Bess had nothing of Gretchen Zoll’s obsessive compulsiveness.  She was just happier when things were in their place, events happened according to predictable antecedents, and life was responsive to reconfiguration, reorganization, and repositioning.

Although her lists for the sailboat, ski vacations, and Christmas dinners were welcome – catch as catch can when two families and eight children show up on the 24th is simply not operational – they were a bit perplexing when it came to daily routines. ‘Get up, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast’ were as important to her as ‘clean the basement, set the traps, or loam the lawn’.

“I like to cross things off”, she explained.  It was not so much the practicality or the insurance against distraction that lists conferred, but the feeling of accomplishment, no matter how insignificant.  

Cleaning the basement if done spontaneously, on a whim or guilty admission of forgetfulness, was not so satisfying as when it was planned well in advance, given its proper place in the sequence of events, a significance in a routine.  When things were down in black and white they were ineradicable; and even when they were crossed off a list, the fragments of their original intent remained.  Even when the list was thrown away to make room for the next, things still had resonant importance and meaning.

This, suggested her uncle to a second cousin, was obsessive compulsive behavior in its own right, forget Gretchen Zoll; but Bess never felt discomfited by such family innuendoes. Lists were as much a part of her life as evening prayers or a morning shower.

This eccentricity was all well and good while it remained personal. No one cared how many lists she made concerning her own house and her own life; but when she took it upon herself to make lists for others, family feathers were easily ruffled.  

There was no way that Uncle Charlie would eat 'Meatloaf, egg salad, chipped beef on toast, tuna melt, and lamb burgers’ as ‘hearty skiers lunches’ during their five day stay at the chalet. He would bring his own ham-and-cheese and PBJ.  

Lists for breakfasts and dinners followed, printed in duplicate and triplicate, emailed and filed, annotated with responsible parties.  The meatloaf would be prepared by Cousin Joanie, the lamb burgers by Herman, and the tuna melt by Wally.

No one really held the lists against Bess, accepted them as a noble eccentricity at best, and soldiered through the ultimately unappealing offerings.  Cousin Joanie never should have been put in charge of the meatloaf which turned out soggy and tasteless, and Wally congealed the tuna and cheese into sodden lumps on white bread; but they were at Jay Peak for the skiing and the family, and not the meals.

Bess’ Aunt Beatrice was convinced that such particularity ran in families; and that it was no coincidence that her brother Ames was just as compulsive as Bess about ordering things.  He did not make lists but found great satisfaction in the completion of gardening tasks. 

When the hedges had been clipped to exactly three-feet-six-inches, the top as level as a carpenter’s bench, the sides tonsured without one errant sprig spoiling the plane, and the earth below smooth, weed and pebble free, Ames was a contented, satisfied, and happy man.  When he cut the grass and edged the lawn into perfect symmetry and balance, he stood back and admired his work – not so much for the perfection and beauty of it, but for having completed it.

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“Where did they both get it?”, asked Beatrice.  “Our grandparents were not that way”; but of course she had overlooked Grandpa Hiram’s diary, a chronicle of everything that happened on the farm, so detailed and complete that the appearance of every fox, possum, coyote, and vole was mentioned in meticulous detail – on which quarter of the land were they seen, in which direction they were going, where they stopped to nibble or mark their path.

There was no rhyme or reason for Hiram’s entry other than it felt right, it provided some semblance of order to his world.  A coyote passing without notice would have neutered it, disappeared it, ignored it. 

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Bess was a good Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday.  It was not surprising that she loved the centuries old, unchanged and unchangeable liturgy, doctrine, and order of the Mass.  She followed every word spoken by the priest in her missal, silently mouthed the Introibo, the Agnus Dei, and the Offertory.  She loved the rhythm and sound of the words repeated over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.  It was Christ’s list, she thought, with nothing crossed out, all permanently divine.

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It was her fate to have married a man for whom lists, predictability, and order were the last things on his mind.  In a confirmation of the ‘opposites attract’ nostrum, she thought his spontaneity cute and delightful.  He would sparkle in what she knew was her deliberately practical and ordered life, and they both would be very happy.

Orin’s ‘spontaneity’, however, translated into unfinished household tasks, hair in the sink, and the toilet seat always up, grated on her nerves until she became a jittery mess.  His indifference to order and propriety was not only disrespectful, it ignored who she was.  Marriage was supposedly all about compromise, but it was clear that neither he nor she would change their ways.

She left lists for him which he ignored, wrote notes in magic marker on the mirror which he shaved through, sent him texts and emails, and woke up scratchy.  They had been married a good long time, and divorce was never in the cards, but Orin had had enough, and when he confronted Bess, she was nonplussed.  It came out of the blue, this evasion.  She never saw it coming.  Her lists had done her in and she had no idea why.

After the divorce she went back to work as a librarian, work that had always suited her.  She loved filing books, cataloguing new acquisitions, following inter-library loans, and tracking down out-of-print editions for special clients. Of all possible professions, this one was most congenial to her interests, personality, and character.

When she died, the few obituaries written only took note of her work as a ‘beloved caretaker of knowledge’ and her long career as a librarian.  There were the usual tributes from her extended family, none of which honed in on the real Bess Anthony, the woman of lists who was more sensible about the chaotic world than most figured.  She was not missed, but then again, such people never are.

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