Saturday, June 23, 2012

Listing My Life Away

When I was about ten or eleven years old, a friend and I thought it would be fun to make a list of everyone we knew.  So notebooks and pencils poised, we took on the task with gusto.

It was easy at first--write down names of family, friends, classmates and teachers.  But then, the questions came up, the easiest being, "We have to list the people we used to know, too, right?"  The answer was undeniably "yes," giving my friend an excuse to abandon what had been her idea in the first place, toss her notebook onto her desk and get back to her HBO movie, one I probably wasn't allowed to watch.  I, however, persisted, which should have set off some kind of alarm with someone, except that no one was paying much attention, other than my friend who already thought I was crazy.

So there I was, back at home, looking at punch-out Valentine's I had kept throughout elementary school, trying to remember everyone I had known, which wasn't as bad as it sounds because we lived in a small town where your classmates were your classmates until someone moved and it was easy to remember the newcomers because their arrival was such a novelty.

But then things got seriously complicated.  What about church people?  I knew the names of the priests and Sunday School teachers, and I knew the names of my Sunday School comrades-in-God's-arms, but what about those folks I always said "hi" to because my parents made me?  Did they count?  I didn't know their names, but even more importantly, did saying "hi" mean I really knew them?

This lead to an existential crisis as I tried to figure out what it meant to "know" someone.  It became obvious to me that I would have to categorize my list by making columns showing the level at which I knew each person.  The effort quickly turned arduous, considering I already had amassed more than 100 names, none of which included the mysterious church people.  But then I had another issue.  What should I label the columns?  I began with something like "know a lot/know a little," but too many people didn't fit those labels, so I had to add another one representing the in-between, which turned out to be the most popular column.

I also started separating out friends from family from school from church from Brownies, etc.  I soon became annoyed, though, because as I built the list, I'd suddenly remember a Brownie or 3rd grade kickball team member, but I had no space to insert the previously forgotten name between the lines set aside for mini-Girl Scouts and base-runners.  So in the margin, I began jotting down the relationship I had with the person, which got messy and confusing because everything was out of chronological order.  To remedy this problem, I added the year in which I met each person, a perhaps unnecessary effort in the case of my immediate family and grandparents whom I had known since birth, but mandatory for more remote uncles, aunts, cousins etc.  Since I didn't remember the date on which I first met these key people, I asked my mother, but she wasn't very helpful.

I maintained this list for about a year (or maybe it just felt like a year), periodically showing it to my friend who could not believe I was being diligent as ever.  Then one day, flipping through the pages, I realized that by the time I became a grownup, I would fill the entire notebook (maybe more if I became famous), which seemed cool at first until I thought about all the work it would take to keep the list up-to-date.  My extracurricular activities had already increased, which meant so did my associations, and I knew when I went to high school and started changing classes and having to talk to more than three people in the cafeteria that my future social life was looking bleaker than the present one so long as I continued my current, time-consuming activity.  Besides, my hand hurt and the pencil kept breaking.

Recently, I wondered if I should have kept that notebook to see how many people I could remember.  Then I reminded myself how easily pencil marks fade and that just this month, I chucked a 25-year-old address book where, for a period of three years, I kept important names and phone numbers, including those of my first boyfriend's stepfather who has long since passed away.  There comes a time when listing, logging and holding on become signs of illness.  Still, I wonder what my inventory would have looked like as an Excel spreadheet.  

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