Before You Die

Here, life has been busy in a good way. I’m working hard on what’s turning into quite a long piece for an anthology of stories set in S.M. Stirling’s “Change” alternate history. My story is set in and around the New Mexico malpais, west of Albuquerque, south of Grants and Acoma. Now that I’ve found my way into the story, the writing is moving along nicely. Good thing, since the due date is the end of March.

Bucket's Lists

Bucket’s Lists

Promotional wheels are beginning to roll for Artemis Awakening. I’ll be coming out to California over the first weekend in June to sign at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego (June 6) and Borderlands Books in San Francisco (June 7). I’ll also have at least three signings in Albuquerque. Others elsewhere are possible. See my newly revised website,, for details and updates.

This past weekend, I was browsing some book catalogs and noticed a trend toward books telling you about things you shouldn’t miss out on before you die. The range was quite wide: places to visit, movies to see, songs (or entire albums) to listen to, foods to eat, pieces of art to see, various activities to try… Sometimes the number was modest as in “10 National Parks to See,” but more usually it was a dramatic 100 or even 1,000 items. Sometimes, instead of giving a number, the book presented a “bucket list” (as in “kick the bucket”). In most cases, the word “must” (or something similar) was included.

I have no idea where this trend originated. Certainly, when we hit the year 2000 there were any number of lists offering expert opinions as to what had been the best books or music or works of art or whatever of the last century or millennium or, even, in really ambitious cases, since the dawn of human civilization. However, these were presented as the opinions of a person or group, usually one that claimed some sort of expertise on the subject. These lists were presented, briefly argued about (especially regarding rankings or what was or was not included), and then, forgotten. As far as I can tell, very few of the people presenting these lists made any attempt to force their lists on anyone else. (An exception might be the use of “best books” lists to inform school curricula.)

However, implicit in these “before you die” lists is a sense of urgency. Whether the phrasing is “must do” or “try,” the implication is that, if you don’t follow these guidelines, your life will have been wasted and incomplete. For the last several days, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about this trend. Complicating the matter is an image I can’t get out of my head – that of a fellow actually trying to follow up on all these “must do” directives.

I see a person sitting on a sofa with a video game controller in his hand. (One book I came across was 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die). In the other hand, he holds a novel that he glances at occasionally. A big screen television is playing a movie. (A window inset in the screen displays the video game.) He has earphones on and is listening to music. When we pull the image back, we can see that he is sitting in a recreational vehicle, speeding through Yellowstone or one of those “must see” places. An array of equipment intended for some of those “things you must try before you die” can be seen scattered around. Finally, long lists with a variety of big, red checkmarks are pinned to the walls.

Despite the chaos in the above image, I also find something positive about these lists. Certainly, there’s something admirable about trying to do something with one’s life, rather than just drifting through. I always found the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” (shortened to TGIF) rather creepy. TGIF implied that life was restricted to a minor percentage of the week – Friday evening through sometime on Sunday, when work once again loomed its ugly head. Songs like “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” reinforce the idea that we live to the fullest only a short period of time. This is also embraced in a lot of “rebel youth” music that implies that life is over when you hit that big 3-0.

In contrast to this attitude, these “must do” lists seem a whole lot more positive. Maybe you’re working a dead end job but if, while you’re doing it, you’re listening to a wide variety of music or an audio book, or seeking out a special food, or planning a trip that will expand your horizons, then you haven’t put your life on hold. Even something as simple as signing up for a “word a day” list (as several of my friends do) seems like a neat attempt to get the most out of every day. In this context, “must do” or “must try” becomes a way of living a vital, examined life – especially if you don’t just listen or play or see for no other reason than checking something off your list, but think about what you’re experiencing.

So, do these “must do” books make you feel as if you’re missing out on life or provide guideposts on how to live it more fully? Do you end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed because of everything you could (or should) be doing? Do you want someone else to provide a list, because they’ll have fresh ideas or approaches, or would you prefer to design a list on your own?


11 Responses to “Before You Die”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    You know, I do like some of those lists, just to get ideas. However, I think there is something profound in enjoying the moment you are in, no matter where you are. Not just enjoying it, but being “present” in it. That sounds zen, and I guess it is. I really want to visit certain places in the world before I die, (New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Hawaii) and have lots of experiences, but I don’t want to feel stressed about the fact that I haven’t done 58 of the 100 things on the list. I don’t think that helps.

    I completely understand the TGIF idea, but I wish it were instead: TGID. Thank God It’s Today. Every day is a blessing, or a curse, depending on how you look at it.

    Now I’m off to write up my bucket list . . .

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Too bad you’ll be in San Francisco on June 7. The San Diego County Fair starts that day. Hope you have a productive tour though.

    I’d suggest that TGIF is good news for jobs that take people away from their families on field work or to construction sites, because it means they get to see their loved ones again for a couple of days.

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    Like the subject but don’t like the concept of a bucket list at all. There are many things I would like to do, learn to speak Italian well enough to take a long vacation back to where my grandfolks grew up and really be able to communicate and learn about their life before they immigrated to America.

    Would like to be a better piano player.

    I like the thought that there are many things I want to do and could possibly do without it becoming a must do.

    Right now I have a pretty full and contented life volunteering, loving friends and children and am happy to just hope that maybe one day, I’ll learn and do other things.

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    I suppose it depends on why a certain item is on your list. Is it because you’re actually passionate about a certain thing, or is it because someone else said you should do it? To some extent, it seems to me that this kind of list-making encourages superficiality. Of course, for some people, making lists and checking things off is part of the fun for them.

    Dreaming and aspiring about doing things is important. We all have to make choices about which dreams we really chase, though. Some dreams are more important than others.

    And to Barbara Joan, who would like to be a better piano player: As someone who plays several instruments (not much piano lately, though), I think the best way to improve musically is to make the music a social occasion. Find someone to do music with–another instrumentalist or vocalist in whatever genre you like (or even several). Working with someone else completely changes how I react to the music. It gives me reason to practice and prepare for the next session. Also, taking lessons is always a good thing, especially if you find a teacher you get along with. I started fiddle lessons last October after not having picked up a fiddle since about 1995.

  5. Barbara Joan Says:

    I do think that having a reason to practice is a good idea. I picked up some very simplified Disney songbooks so I could practice them and play them for my grandchildren when I see them. Thanks for reminding of that point.

  6. Paul Says:

    I don’t know that I’d be interested in any of those published bucket lists. But I might be interested in one I’d make up for myself.

  7. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I have some thing I’d like to see or do (I.E. I’d kill to be there when/if the Chargers win a superbowl), but they don’t define how I lived. The only thing I want to be sure I do, I’m doing. My fiction is the one thing I want to finish. To tell these stories. If nothing else, leave behind enough some others can finish it.

    Beyond that, these lists mean little to me, beyond interesting things I might do given a chance.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    I’ve been thinking about things I’d like to do… but these are all in the context that I really enjoy my current life. I feel very fortunate that I get to spend so much of my day on things I feel are worth my time and with people I care about.

    That said… I’d like to see whales in the wild. (Although even Sea World was amazing.) I’d like to take a riverboat journey on the Nile. I’d like to see the Grand Canyon… and maybe an active volcano.

    But, as several folks here said, I don’t let these define my life.

    Actually, right now a deadline is defining my life… I’d better get to it!

    • Heteromeles Says:

      If you can make it to So Cal in the winter, it’s fairly easy to get on a whale-watching trip.

    • Sally Says:

      The Grand Canyon’s only a (long) day’s drive away. Of course you’d want to leave enough time once you’re there to let the huge silence of it fill your head. Hiking the trails is great, sure, but the best thing is to just sit on the edge dangling your feet (well, however close you feel you can come).

      Say four days total for the trip? (Yeah, I know. Creatures at home need taking care of).

    • Sue Estell Says:

      Jane, I was so glad to read that you also want to see the Grand Canyon! I thought I was the only person living within a ridiculously close distance to it who hadn’t seen it. I don’t feel so alone! 😉

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