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Kicking the Bucket List

Tiny Castles of Doom

Read between the lines of a to-do list, and you’ll find an artfully constructed maze of excuses. A challenge to complete five things before the end of summer, or before you die—whichever comes first.

Vassili Balatsos, Independent Post-Industrial Landscape, 2005. Courtesy the artist and THE APARTMENT, Athens.

I spent my 20s and early 30s on the kind of careening adventures people put on bucket lists. I hiked a four-day trek to Machu Picchu. I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway and visited the world’s largest corn palace. I swam with dolphins. Well, one dolphin, anyway, and he was very nice. I skinny-dipped in multiple bodies of water, which is another way of saying that I’ve been blindingly drunk in multiple bodies of water. I did these things because I wanted to be a person who Did These Things, because I believed youth was fleeting, drink was the gasoline of all grand adventures, and I owed it to my future disappointed self to burn like a firecracker against the midnight sky and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (Thoreau said that last part. One day, I should read his book.)

But my bucket list lifestyle came with an exorbitant price tag. By 35, I had $10,000 in credit card debt and owed $30,000 to the IRS. (Woefully left off my bucket list in 2006-2007: Paying taxes.) I lived in New York then, and I was so broke that year I had to rely on one of those free accounting services, where the accountant met with clients in a noisy, far-flung YMCA space in Queens full of cruel chairs and flickering light. The day we filed my return—the day that my astronomical debt became official—I staggered out of her office, sank onto the concrete steps beside a pick-up basketball game, and stared into space. I didn’t even cry. I just: Stared. I did not know how I would ever make it back. I did not know how I got here. And because I was in Queens, I mean that literally. I had NO IDEA where I was, and it took me two hours to thread my way back to my comfy bed in Williamsburg, where I stayed for the rest of the day, sunk.

I needed to figure out a way to get right with the world—not because I was going to die soon, but because I probably wasn’t.

Four years have passed since that moment, and mountains have moved in that time. I borrowed money from my father to pay off the credit cards. I committed to a payment plan with Uncle Sam that will last longer than many marriages. I moved back to Texas, a life that I could afford. I quit drinking, and I quit smoking—and let me tell you, a four-day trek to Machu Picchu is a cakewalk compared to this sort of reckoning. But there comes a time in every person’s life when she must stop swimming with the goddamn dolphins and she must sit on hold with the IRS for an hour, punching a pillow.

I’ve gotten better at the drudgery of real life, but I still suffer from bad habits. I put off difficult tasks, and then I feel guilty about putting off these tasks, and I blow that guilt out of proportion, and then I rub all these bad feelings around my insides like broken glass. I become a worry machine. It is not an overstatement to say that the despair of these tiny, accumulated failures keeps me from truly living, because it creates in me a need to hide from the world. I needed to figure out a way to get right with the world—not because I was going to die soon, but because I probably wasn’t.

And so, in June, I resolved to make a different kind of bucket list. A practical, no-shit bucket list for summer 2012, one that would help me look the world square in the eye. I pulled out a yellow legal pad and scribbled down the first five goals that came to mind:

Get the oil on your car changed. Figure out if that guy is mad at you. Fix the air conditioner thingy. Find love. Email all those people.

That list might sound small, but staring down your own shortcomings is never an easy task. That list was freighted with irrational fear, unresolved hurt, and personal disappointment. It felt as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon to me.

I was ready to stare it down.

1. Get the oil on your car changed.

Later that week I drove my Honda Civic to a garage—five months later after I said I would. What’s amazing is how many hours I spent wondering what happens to a car that doesn’t get its oil changed and how easy it was to actually get it done. I had not even finished re-acquainting myself with the Kardashians while flipping through tabloids in the waiting room when the guy returned, dangling my keys.

“You’re done,” he said. “That’ll be $25.”

This is going to be a breeze, I thought. And then I put off everything else on my list for the next two months.

2. Figure out if that guy is mad at you.

Right before I moved from New York last summer, I had loose plans to meet a writer friend for dinner. When I emailed to make arrangements, he didn’t respond. I sent another email, then another. His inbox was a black hole. I must have lobbed a half-dozen emails into that thing.

I know better than to take every little thing personally, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I spent months hatching conspiracy theories to explain the silence. It would burble up at odd moments. On a walk around the lake. Scrubbing the toilet bowl. Did I write something he misinterpreted? Did I say something that offended him? I could go all day like this. My anxiety could run for miles.

Eventually, I contacted him on Facebook. He had no idea what I was talking about. We made plans to meet for coffee the next time I was in New York, and then both kinda forgot about it.

3. Fix the air conditioner thingy.

I moved into my adorable carriage house in June of last year. The people who live in the beautiful, sprawling front house are probably the nicest landlords ever. On my first night here, they brought over a champagne bucket full of flowers. Their handyman (they have a handyman) handcrafted mesh screens so my big orange tabby could sit in the windows and feel the air on his fur. When the man first toured me around the carriage house, he squinted at a digital box on the bedroom wall, flicked it with his finger and said, “Here’s the air conditioning unit. I’m sure you can figure that out.”

It was like when your toilet won’t flush, and you realize you can just lift the tank and reach inside and pull up the arm, and pretty soon, you get so accustomed to this workaround that you think it’s how everyone flushes their toilet.

But I couldn’t figure it out. I’m terrible at technology. It’s a deep-dark shame. I didn’t want to bother them—they’d been so nice—and so I forged onward that first night, punching so many complicated buttons I might have deployed missiles somewhere. The only way I could make the air conditioner do what I wanted, though, was to hit the touchscreen HOLD button whenever it reached the temperature I desired.

This was not an elegant solution. It was like when your toilet won’t flush, and you realize you can just lift the tank and reach inside and pull up the arm, and pretty soon, you get so accustomed to this workaround that you think it’s how everyone flushes their toilet, and people come over and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, sorry, just lift up the tank and jiggle the thing inside.” And it’s like: What have you become?

Summer came and went, the A/C turned to heat, and in April, or May, the touchpad stopped working. I could bang on it over and over and it wouldn’t budge. (Gee, I wonder what broke it.) Nearly a year after moving in, I was embarrassed to tell the nicest landlords ever that I had never figured out the stupid digital air conditioner despite their total and complete assurance that I would.

And so, for a while, I lived in whatever climate zone the air conditioner dictated. It was programmed by the previous tenant, who kept the house warm during the day and apparently liked to carve ice sculptures at night. I slept under a thick duvet with my teeth chattering, even in Texas’s most withering heat. But once I’d added it to my bucket list, I knew the charade was up. I admitted my ignorance to the nicest landlords ever. They didn’t even blink. They just sent over their handyman to take a look.

“What the hell is this thing?” he said, pecking at it with a scowl on his face. “This is the most confusing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, and ripped it from the wall. He bought a new air conditioner thingy, which is incredibly easy to operate, and I’m still too cold at night and too hot in the afternoon because it turns out the actual air conditioner just doesn’t work all that well and Texas summers are hell.

4. Find love.

Now, this was a stupid and ridiculous thing to put on a bucket list, and I regretted it immediately. Maybe I was thinking that the insertion of love into a list that had the emotional gravity of an insurance form would somehow make my story better. Or maybe I thought that by putting the words “find love” on a list of things I had to do, I would somehow circumvent the complex psychological fears, disappointing OkCupid dates, and frustrating mental and physical mismatches that kept me away from love for so long. Like, now I’ll just wrap my bare legs around the ropy naked thighs of Jeremy Renner because, listen dude, it’s for a story.

But seeing those words on the list made me feel small and foolish and vulnerable. Who was I kidding? Love was not a box to be checked. The search for love was massive and never-ending. And so, one day in mid-August, I crossed it off the list and wrote instead, “Get better at Twitter.” This was a hell of a downshift. I went from “find love” to “better manage my media brand across multiple platforms.”

But “Get better at Twitter” depressed me in an existential way. I crossed it off, too, and left the field blank, waiting for inspiration to strike. In the meantime, I moved on to the final task—the task I had been avoiding all along.

5. Email all those people.

I don’t even know where to start with this one. Maybe right now you are thinking, who are these poor people, and what has she done to them? And I’m sorry to make it sound so dramatic, because it’s really quite boring, because the answer is, well: These are people I didn’t email back.

I owed them emails for multiple reasons, mostly work-related. (I’m the personal essays editor at Salon.) I never got back to them about a story. I never got back to them with edits. I never got back to them with a rejection after showing interest and instead left them hanging on for months and months, so that our correspondence would be a string of polite nudges from them. “Just checking in on this,” it would say. “Don’t want to be a bother,” it would say. “Just wondering if you had a chance,” it would begin. And from me: silence. Avoidance. Nothing. This could go on for months. This could go on for a year.

I knew from conversations with other editors that slipping up, disappearing for months, and breaking the spirits of eager young writers was practically a part of the job description. We were all doggy-paddling in a tidal wave of pitches and submissions, clutching onto whatever driftwood floats in front of our path that day. But in a manner that felt both human and grandiose, I feared my misdeeds were worse than others. And because I felt my misdeeds were worse, I raised the stakes on the apology I thought was owed, which made it harder to pull off, which made me keep avoiding it.

I carved out an entire day to write those emails, but still I sputtered. In the morning, I played guitar and listened to the radio. At 11 a.m., I walked up and down the stairs of my carriage house with my hands on my head, giving myself a pep talk like I was Henry V sending troops into battle. At noon, I decided I needed to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That instant.

I hadn’t opened Milan Kundera’s book since I was 19 years old. Exactly half a lifetime ago. Back then, I was a girl from Dallas who took the number seven bus to the mall every weekend in college because that’s what an adventure was. I had never been to New York. I had never traveled. And I had never experienced a book as astonishing as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was so erotic and resplendent and tragic that it was like cracking open a window in the sky.

Reading it at 38 gave me the same comfort it did back then: It made my problems seem small and my heart feel big. It had these twisty ironies that made sense but still mystified me—how occupation can be a freedom, how pain can be a gift, how something so heavy can be so light. It’s like the whole book was written by a benevolent force, staring down on us and shaking his head sweetly at the human condition. The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our moves their every meaning is always totally unknown to us. Silly humans. Totally doomed.

At 6 p.m., I finally wrote my first email. I wrote another and another. They were hard, but I tried not to make a big deal out of them—“making big deals out of things” was an act I needed to leave off of every bucket list, ever. I said things like, “You deserved a faster response. I apologize.” I said things like, “I screwed up. I’m sorry.”

Afterward, I didn’t feel relieved. I felt sad. It bums me out sometimes, how much more I have to learn. But life is long, and if you’re lucky, lessons appear when you’re ready to learn them. I woke up the next day, and had a very short to-do list, which was nice. All I had to do was write this story. And then I saw I still had a blank where I’d crossed out “Find love.” I picked up my pen and wrote:

4. Read The Unbearable Lightness of Being again.

And with that, my list was complete.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Sarah Hepola is the Life editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nerve, and on NPR. She lives in Texas with a sweet orange cat who is not fat, he’s just big-boned. If you just read her story about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she’d like to point that it is fiction. More by Sarah Hepola