Rants from the Hill: The Bucket List

When making a to-do list is the most important thing on your to-do list.


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.


“Death is nature’s way of saying ‘your table is ready.’” –Robin Williams

A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry was resurrected in the tabloids after it suggested that successful comedians often show characteristics typically found in folks suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A scientifically demonstrable link between humor and insanity had momentarily captured the feeble imagination of a public that likes to think of comedy as a form of divine madness, and so rushed to embrace the dubious proposition that the wise fools who produce it are necessarily both troubled and gifted. Apparently this isn’t the same public that attends Hollywood comedies, which consist primarily of fart jokes aimed at a core demographic of fourteen-year-old boys. So poor is the comic fare at the Cineplex (which itself sounds like an incurable disease) that even I, an aficionado of flatulence humor, have thrown in the towel. We’ve simply come too far from the quality fart jokes of Shakespeare. (In Othello the musician asks the clown “Whereby hangs a tail, sir?” to which the clown replies “by many a wind instrument that I know.”)

In response to the immoderate public affection for this study, comedienne Sara Pascoe wrote a brilliant reply in The Guardian. In it, she flatly points out that being a humorist is a job, and that some people succeed at it because they work hard. Comedy, she observes, is a craft, a practice, a skill, and, often, a grind. (Here I’m reminded of Mark Twain, who complained in a letter that “for seven weeks I have not had my natural rest but have been a night-and-day sick-nurse to my wife . . . and yet must turn in now and write a damned humorous article.”) Well, this was a pretty unheroic gloss, what with its total absence of insanity and genius and all. Pascoe is absolutely right, but that didn’t change the fact that, as a humorist myself, I wasn’t keen on her outing us as she did. After all, who wants to be told that something that is supposed to make them laugh actually took a long time to create and was terribly hard work? If people prefer to see industrious, workmanlike humorists as insane geniuses, I don’t see a decent reason to mess that up. Always better to be funny than right.

One of Pascoe’s observations, however, caught my attention. Commenting that the creativity of the humorist “allows a much more childlike approach to life,” she goes on to say that if the researchers had administered their test to children, instead of to 523 professional comedians (how did they find so many?), the kids would “all be hugely ‘psychotic’ in their thinking.” As a parent, I found this assertion that children are universally insane more interesting—and also considerably more accurate—than the claim that humor is a natural byproduct of psychopathology.

I had a chance to test this proposition recently, when my two young daughters decided, for no reason whatsoever, that everybody in our family should produce a bucket list. Now, I had long intended to make a bucket list, but had been kept from it by the most obvious impediment: thinking about what you want to do before you die means thinking about dying, which is even less entertaining than a Hollywood fart joke. My wife, Eryn, claims that I have “mortality issues,” which is accurate only if preferring life to death constitutes an “issue.” (I’m from the Woody Allen school on this one: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” wrote Allen, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”) Still, it wasn’t easy to say no to the girls, so we all agreed to work on our personal bucket lists.

Hannah and Caroline had so much fun with their project that by the next day they had posted their two lists—with a combined total of over 150 entries—on the outside of their bedroom door. In this same time I had constructed a bucket list that consisted, literally, of a single entry: “Make a bucket list.” In fairness, I’m not a very expeditious list maker, even when the topic is more pleasant than “Stuff I need to get done quickly in case I die.” After all, it took me two decades to complete my “List of Things That Actually Work,” which includes only WD-40, bourbon, and Moby-Dick. Still, the girls had good reason to complain that I didn’t seem to be working very hard on my list. Their lists were not only completed (and decorated!) but publicly posted, like Martin Luther’s theses on the church door, while I had only my one, sad little entry. It didn’t help that my list, such as it was, was scribbled in shop pencil on the back of a liquor store receipt.

Needing to divert the focus away from my own failure, I decided to take a good, close look at the girls’ bucket lists. After all, how could they have produced anything decent in such a short time? As I read through their lists, though, I was impressed not only by the range and creativity of what Hannah and Caroline had come up with, but also by their uninhibited spontaneity and originality. As Pascoe might have predicted, the lists did look like they had been made by crazy people—but by imaginative, caring, crazy people who recognize no limits to what is possible.

I examined eleven-year-old Hannah’s list first. It contained a lot of adventures that I wish I had thought to put on my own list, including “hang glide,” “make an album of my own cool music,” “play basketball in the snow,” and “be an extra in a movie.” But along with these proposed escapades were some items whose beauty was in their everyday nature: “fill a jar with buttons,” “babysit for somebody other than my sister,” “go a week without making my bed,” “finish a book in a day.” There was also a good bit more philanthropy than my own unwritten list is likely to have contained. Hannah wanted to “feed homeless people,” “read stories at a senior home,” and “help poor children,” all of which made my own life’s goals—which, if I could ever articulate them, would include “drink expensive rye,” “cuss out my boss,” and “heckle more at baseball games”—seem selfish and ill-conceived. Hannah’s list showed a desire to travel, but while she included visits to Canada, London, and New Orleans, she also listed “ride my bike in California” (not very exotic, since California is just a few miles away).

And I was struck that Hannah’s list contained items that were easy as pie right along with things that were pie in the sky. “Participate in a pie eating contest,” for example, appeared just a few entries away from “become a famous inventor.” “Build a big snowman” was right next to “meet the president.” I also noticed that the desert figured prominently in her list. “Own a rattlesnake,” “hike up the canyon to watch the moon rise,” and “sing a concert for the coyotes” were among the things she hopes to accomplish. Hannah’s bucket list also expressed an urge to bring delight to others. She wanted to “count how many people I can make smile” and “get a whole room of people laughing.”

Seven-year-old Caroline’s list was, if anything, even more interesting. Like her big sister’s bucket list, Caroline’s oscillated wildly from the mundane to the fantastic. “Get a white cat” was number 42 on her list; number 43 was “be an astronaut.” “Dye rocks” was immediately next to “climb the Eiffel Tower” and “have a pet hamster” was adjacent to “ride a shark” (there was a lot of animal riding on her list: shark, seal, jaguar, kangaroo, and giraffe). “Work at a pool” was immediately preceded by “touch the moon.” “Eat cake with my hands” was not far from “carve a giant totem pole.” Also like Hannah, little sister had constructed a list that was animated by a genuine philanthropic sentiment. While Caroline wanted to “own a hundred year old mansion” she also wanted to “own an orphanage and give kids ice cream every day.” And in addition to planning to “give flowers to a stranger” she also expressed the more disturbing ambition to “have a big sleepover with random people off the street.”

Given Caroline’s personality, I should have guessed that she wants to “climb a volcano,” “make a world record,” and “form a band called the ‘Fire Breathing Unicorns.’” But she also has some simple dreams: to “use a walkie talkie,” “have a tug-o-war over a mud pit,” and “dance in the rain.” And, like her sister, many of Caroline’s life goals are linked to her home desert. She wants to “go pan for gold,” “find the end of a desert rainbow,” and, for some reason, “eat a kangaroo rat.” She also plans to “mountain bike across Spain, Thailand, and Massachusetts.” My favorite entry on her list was “dream about visiting a beautiful island.” When I asked why she thought it would be so wonderful to visit an island she corrected me, emphatically: “No, Dad, dream about visiting an island!”

No grownup I know would make a to-do list including something they ought to dream about. Hell, we wouldn’t even add to our bucket list that we want to touch the moon—though of course we do—because we’d shoot the rocket of that fantasy down before it could lift off our cognitive launch pad. (If Neil Armstrong had a bucket list when he was seven years old, I hope it included “touch the moon.”) I’m not sure we’d even admit to ourselves that we’d like to carve a totem pole or dance in the rain or eat cake with our hands. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t make a decent bucket list: because as a grownup I’ve fallen into the dark habit of editing life’s possibilities before they can be written, perhaps even before they can be thought. This represents not only a terrible failure of imagination, but in fact an active repression of it. I had only one thing on my bucket list—to make a bucket list—and I still couldn’t get it done. Reflecting on fame, Jimi Hendrix observed that “Once you’re dead, you’re made for life.” He ought to know. But for those of us who haven’t kicked the bucket yet, success is less certain. Should I try for world peace right away, or start with bungee jumping and work my way up? If every moment is unutterably precious, which it so clearly is, where do we begin the race to fulfill our dreams while there’s still time left to try?

Within a few days of creating their wonderful bucket lists, the girls did something else that a lot of grownups would find challenging: they set out to do as many of the listed activities as possible, placing a check mark next to each as it was completed. Hannah was able to “read a book in one day” and “make a parody of a song,” while Caroline managed to “dye rocks” and, thanks to the remoteness of the Ranting Hill, “snort at an antelope.” A freak desert downpour made it suddenly possible for both kids to “dance in the rain.” Hoping to get into the spirit of their attempt to accomplish the things on their bucket lists, I scanned the lists for something more immediately achievable than “touch the moon.” When I did, I noticed an item on Caroline’s list that I hadn’t seen before: “paint me and Hannah on a wall.”

“What do you mean by this one?” I asked Caroline, pointing to #68 on her list.

“You know, me and Hannah stand against a wall, like we’re shadows, and then we paint the shapes of our shadows on the wall,” she explained, with obvious concern that I might be too dimwitted to grasp the concept.

“Ah, ok. I get it now. You and sister grab some play chalk and come with me,” I instructed, marching out the door. The girls soon followed me to the tool shed, where I had found the better part of a gallon of cherry-apple red paint and two old brushes. “Now y’all stand against the shed in any position you want.”

“Really? This is going to be awesome!” said Caroline. Hannah announced, excitedly, that she intended to put this painting thing on her bucket list too, so she could cross it off later. The girls took their positions against the shed, remaining frozen while I patiently chalked their “shadows” against the tan wall of the outbuilding. Hannah posed with arms up, in the biceps flex of a bodybuilder; little Caroline became a superhero about to take flight. Then I popped the paint can open with my knife, handed each of them a brush, and suggested that they get to work on their bucket list.

Eryn and I sat nearby on a pair of bucked juniper logs and watched the girls at play. It took them a good while, but they never tired of the project, which they laughed their way through. Although Caroline accidentally painted Beauregard the dog a little, things went pretty smoothly. When the final strokes were complete, we all stood back and admired what had been wrought. The girls’ bright red silhouettes jumped off the drab wall of the shed, and two cherry-apple shadows of joy were added to our high desert fauna. In that moment, as we congratulated the girls on their painting, I finally realized exactly where to begin work on a bucket list: anywhere.

That evening we had a fine supper. Afterwards, we all ate cake with our hands.

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