Feeling listless

Santa-listSomething about the human condition is improved by listing things. Lists help us organize, and humans like to do that–even if they are not very good at it. As the year-end approaches, the lists appear with greater speed. “The best…”, “The worst…”, “The most…”, “The least…”. If you want to annoy someone, put out a list with a superlative: each us will have our preferences and they become more important when someone thinks they can trump your choices. I think they also tell me about a certain desire to be superior, on the part of the lister–sort of, “I know better than you…”, which really can wrankle. So, what, if you’ve been to some places that you think are the best? If it doesn’t include my favourites, then I’m not going to be impressed. I had such a feeling yesterday, when I read a list of ‘best food found abroad’: it included nothing Jamaican or Caribbean. “Blasted American parochialism” was the expression that went through my head as I took out my hatchet hand. What about jerk food, or escoveitch? What about guava duff? Enough of them. I moved on. I yanked the Yankee.

So, can we resist that listing feeling? I think so. If I didn’t object to lists, I’d suggest making a resolution.

Listing, like forecasting, runs the big risk of being wrong very soon. I’ve done away with forecasting as a serious exercise, and I am doing all I can to avoid that listing feeling.

I don’t need post-it notes reminding me of things ‘to do’. If they are important enough, they will be done. If they’re not done, I don’t want to feel angst about things on the list that were not done. Listing them wont raise their priority in my mind. I don’t need to craft out my day in lines to tell me what the hours mean in terms of actions: that would ruin the fun of just drifting off and doing something different. That feeling may be stronger now that I live somewhere that nature has blessed with great weather most days. I don’t need to tie a knot in my hankie to remember to pick up my daughter from school–she’s so precious, that I can’t imagine forgetting her 🙂 If I were prone to hanging around coffee shops and yacking endlessly on my phone, I might need a reminder to get off the blower and attend to something important. But, I’ve not fallen into that way of life yet.

Lists are the front end of anal-retention. I can visualise that rear-end tightening and loosening as the items are piled onto the paper. Everything all neat and proper. I think of The twelve days of Christmas12days differently when I see it as a list. Similarly, the story of Noah: two turtle doves, check; two hairy elephants, check…

I understand that lists can be comforting, and the anal aspect of that may be less. But, what is comforting for some can also be enraging for others. When someone publishes a list of people murdered in Jamaica, it evokes both sympathy and rage. The same feeling comes when I read a list of casualties from another road accident on Jamaica’s roads. But, the big “Why?” has not been removed by the list; it’s become bigger.

I wonder if my feeling about lists would change if I knew or suspected that they were active. Imagine, seeing a list of corrupt public officials, and somehow having the list constantly updated, like the NASDAQ board in Times Square, New York. I think I would feel different if I could see names rolling in front of me as another bribe was handed over. 0421-nasdaq_full_600

But, if that were possible, then the problem is hardly likely to persist. Or, am I being naive? Think about it (names are random and imaginary):

  1. Cedric Palmer, J$5000; road project, May Pen.
  2. Hyacinth McPherson, J$18,000; school supplies, Yallahs.
  3. Walter Perkins, J$90,000; Customs, Port of Kingston.

You could only wonder what reception they would get when they got home or back to their offices, and the phone was ringing like it wanted to jump off the hook. Walking into the house for dinner would be a very interesting experience: “Why no kiss, honey?” would be met with “Honey? You mean money!”

I remember working on tax evasion problems in a Baltic country, while at the IMF. The head of tax administration in the country had the idea of publishing the names and amounts of those who were guilty of the offense. Well, whereas he used to be greeted at some premises with treats and actual phyical violence when trying to serve notices about delinquent payments, he now found his office awash with people who couldn’t pay fast enough. I know that publishing lists of delinquent tax payers has been tried in Jamaica, and wonder what effect it is having. It’s one thing to have a list of ‘good and great’, and something else to have lists of reprobates: most wanted for scofflaw.

Lists can be self-serving, feel goodie things, even though this can simply be implicit. Jamaica’s prime minister has been feeling the wrath of lists–though, she says that she does not follow news media (”I listen to positive criticism and I don’t listen to the negative ones , I don’t even watch the television, I let my husband watch and he tells me what is going on.”…”I have a minister in charge, he will respond to your query.”) Her listing of her style opened her up to a wave of understandable criticism. Since, a good number of people have made it known that they feel that she travels too much–they’ve listed her foreign trips and found them excessive in some sense–their frequency, the size of the entourage, etc. (lists within lists). Some have no real issue with the number of trips but want an accounting of what was achieved–a list, if ever there was one. Why would such a thing be difficult? Well, it isn’t, so when it’s not done, people start to list reasons why the information is not shared–and the reasons don’t come out looking good. What is wrong with transparency? Write your list of reasons and send them to the prime minister’s office.

Humans feel that lists somehow lessen problems. I’ve never seen an animal make a list, though, having said that I will now look more carefully at the antics of my wife’s and daughter’s Shitzu. Is he really making lists while he’s asleep at my feet? That might explain the constant grunting and whimpering that I hear. “How many times can I chase that golf ball? How many socks can I take from the laundry room?” Clearly, he’s troubled that he has so much to do and so little time on his paws. I don’t mind being different, so hear me when I say “The lists make me more worried, if they suggest that they somehow represent an end in themselves.” I think I will assume the sleeping dog lies contentedly because he’s not got a single list in his mind.

On that note, I’m going to head off to the gym and do some exercise. That’s one thing to check off a list that I’ve not made today.

Have a blessed New Year.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)