Monday, December 19, 2005

Things I really must do before I die

I originally wrote this piece in July 2000. It was my last summer in New Haven before taking up my current job at Columbia, I was teaching a writing class in creative non-fiction and I asked my students to write autobiographical lists on the model of Georges Perec’s extraordinary “Things I Really Must Do Before I Die” (it’s in the collection Species of Spaces, which I don’t have here with me but can highly recommend; I believe "Things..." was a radio broadcast Perec did in 1981, only a year or so before he died of lung cancer, and part of the painfulness and poignancy of the piece is knowing that he isn’t going to get to do most of these things at all).

I’m posting my own list now for your amusement while I’m away. I probably won’t post again until Dec. 27, unless I manage to hijack a computer in New York or Philadelphia. I have resisted the temptation to change some of the items on the list—think of it as a self-portrait circa 2000—but will confess that I’ve done minor copy-editing here and there. I’ve also glossed several points in notes at the end.

(I strongly recommend this as a writing exercise. Just take the title and start writing; you can use whatever headings you want to structure the list, and you will probably get quite funny results with little effort. Be as concrete as possible.)

Things I really must do before I die

There are some things I should really learn how to do before I die, things it’s ridiculous I can’t do already:

1. Learn to drive
2. Learn how to snap my fingers

There are also self-improvement projects that I am unlikely to undertake but often think about, projects that involve upgrading skills I already have:

3. Improve my Russian
4. Relearn the oboe (including making decent reeds)
5. Run a marathon
6. Learn to play squash

While the previous items are all at least vaguely feasible, I also sometimes think about self-improvement projects so improbable that they verge on the completely impossible (James Bond-style):

7. Pilot light aircraft
8. Speak fluent Japanese
9. Become a martial-arts expert

Alternate professions about which I fantasize:

10. Epidemiologist
11. Neurologist
12. Hairdresser
13. Pastry chef

Sights I would like to see:

14. A real armadillo crossing a highway in the Southwest (with desert cactus in the background)
15. Monkeys climbing around outside the window of the house where I’m staying (maybe in Columbo, Sri Lanka or Durban, South Africa)
16. The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg

Conceptually appealing but practically off-putting travel projects:

17. Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Russia to China
18. Following the old Silk Road
19. Riding up the Amazon on a boat and seeing a Mozart opera in the old opera-house at Manaus
20. Traveling to Gombe Park in Tanzania and spending six months observing chimpanzees in the wild

Things I have done in the past but have lost the nerve to continue doing:

21. Dye my hair green
22. Drugs

Things I would like to be able to make, build or draw:

23. Perfect crème brulée
24. Professional-looking sushi
25. Houses
26. Mechanical drawings and blueprints

I would like to know what the following places are like:

27. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta
28. The offices where New York homicide detectives work
29. Death Row

There are people who I would like to meet and who I also have some chance of meeting because they are only moderately famous:

30. Lou Reed

(Technically, I did meet Lou Reed, in 1991; my then boyfriend was working at a shabby computer store on 8th St. and called me up to say that Lou Reed was in the store. He told me to come over right away; I was convinced he was pulling my leg, since Lou Reed was so much the number-one-person on my list of famous people I’d like to meet; finally I ran over to the store and there was Lou Reed, buying a new computer monitor. Somewhere I still probably have the credit card receipt with his signature on it.)

31. Jonathan Richman
32. Robyn Hitchcock

There are some people I will never meet because they are too famous:

33. Dennis Hopper

There are also people (coincidentally, all writers) I will never meet because they are dead:

34. Anthony Burgess
35. Chester Himes
36. Derek Raymond

(But since the last two basically drank themselves to death, it might be that they would have behaved badly in the event of an actual meeting. Coincidentally they both also lived in France.)

I have a long list of writing projects which I find especially appealing:

37. A hard-boiled detective novel
38. The screenplay for a violent and nihilistic cop thriller
39. An opera libretto
40. A best-seller

There are certain brand-name consumer items that I will never buy myself but that my wealthy fictional alter-ego might own:

41. A Fendi baguette
42. An Issey Miyake shirt
43. Manolo Blahnik shoes
44. A very expensive watch (but not a Rolex Oyster)
45. One of those fancy-looking metal briefcases that mobsters in the movies wear shackled to their wrists

My dream apartment would have the following features (I never want to live in a house):

46. Medical woodcuts by Vesalius
47. Mechanically ingenious and beautifully designed lighting fixtures
48. A long rectangular room with hardwood floors, high ceilings and no furniture, with a narrow bench running around all four sides of the room like an old-fashioned railway-station waiting-room
49. A Fabergé egg in a lit display case
50. A row of shower-stalls in an industrial-style bathroom

CODA. A few thoughts on the list. On the one hand, I’m very much the same person who wrote it, with the proviso that graduate school in New Haven made me more materialistic and also more domestic in my fantasies than I would be now—I hereby disclaim any desire to make perfect crème brulée or to own any of the brand-name consumer items listed as 41.-45. (with the possible exceptions of the Issey Miyake shirt and the briefcase).

On the other hand, my present-day life is far more satisfying than my graduate-school life, so in general I think much less than I did then about things I want to do in the future; these days, in other words, I would be much less likely to write such a list in the first place.

That said, some more specific glosses:

1.-2. Still haven’t learned to drive. Still haven’t learned how to snap my fingers.

5. Have decided I will never run a marathon; I don’t like running, and it makes my knees hurt. However I am thinking about taking up kickboxing and possibly some more esoteric martial art as well (see 9.).

Addendum to “Sights I would like to see”: the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland. Seriously, I’m going to DIE of disappointment if I don’t get to see this in the next few years. Also I did go to St. Petersburg a month after I wrote the original list, and I did see the Winter Palace, but only from the outside. I surprised myself during that trip by falling in love with Moscow rather than St. Petersburg.

23. See disclaimer above. And I can’t really say I care so much any more about the sushi or the blueprints, either. But I would still like to be able to build houses (and particularly to know how to do plumbing and electrical work, if only for the cause of gender equity, since my brothers do all this kind of stuff extremely well and I feel I have neglected my genetic potential in a way that unhappily corresponds with my having two X chromosomes).

27. At the wedding of my friends E. and J. I met E.’s brother’s boyfriend who works at the CDC. Apparently a lot of novelists and screenwriters hang around there soaking up local color; he said I could come along and check the place out any time I wanted, and that he would be happy to show me around. (I think the lesson of this is that I should find a NYC homicide detective who’s willing to let me visit on the job. Most people are surprisingly hospitable to the idea of a writer wanting to learn more about their work life, even if you’re not a well-known novelist or whatever.)

31.-32. Was I really listening to so much Jonathan Richman and Robyn Hitchcock in 2000?!? I would have thought that was more like 1988. Strange—some kind of regression?

33. Dennis Hopper seems less famous to me now than he did to my year-2000 graduate-student self. However while it now seems to me marginally more likely that I might meet him, I still think it would be unlikely to lead to interesting or satisfying conversation. (I watched one episode of that bizarre Pentagon E-Ring show this fall on the strength of the Hopper appeal: one was enough, though I found the show’s peculiar emphasis on bureaucratic decision-making rather appealing.)

36. I am consoled for not being able to meet Derek Raymond by having hung out with the altogether lovely and equally brilliant Ken Bruen.

46., 48. My dream-apartment aesthetic remains the same, only I wouldn’t want any art. No Vesalius, no Fabergé, no photographs by Andreas Gursky (not on this list, but an enthusiasm of the following year when I got this book). No art. Also, for the record, the dream bathroom is like a more insane and grandiose version of the absolutely beautiful bathroom in my friend T.’s apartment in the former Ex-Lax Building on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.


  1. RE: Death Row

    When my mom was in high school in Baltimore in the mid-1960's, one of their field trips was a visit to death row to see what was then Maryland's electric chair, as an educational "scared straight" type of experience. You could even sit in it! I've always thought this sounded very cool, in a gory kind of way, and wished my high school had offered this experience.