Monday, September 15, 2014

Competitive Travel, to Kick or Keep the Bucket List

I enjoyed this cultural comment very much from The New Yorker, "Kicking the Bucket List."
While I love to go to new places, I equally love to return to places I've been before. Each time the experience get's richer, the friendships expand, I see new things, learn new bits of a place, or simply relax and soak in the familiar. Thank you Rebecca Mead for this eloquent piece.

Read the full article below or online here.

Kicking the Bucket List


Given the daunting agenda of international crises—in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq—with which world leaders contended at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, last week, it is forgivable that President Obama chose to indulge in a little cultural tourism before departing from the U.K. At the summit’s close, the President had his helicopter stop by Boscombe Down Air Force Base in Wiltshire, so that he and his motorcade could make the twenty-minute drive to Stonehenge. He strode jacketless around the monument’s weathered, lichen-covered stones, and listened earnestly to the site’s English Heritage curator. “Knocked it off the bucket list right now,” he told watching reporters before returning to his car and to Washington, an hour behind his official schedule.

The concept of the bucket list—places one wants to visit, experiences one wants to undergo, and accomplishments one wants to master before dying—has gained widespread cultural currency, and that the President should talk of having one should not be surprising. (One does wonder at the downgrading of his aspirations, from “Become President” and “Eradicate Al Qaeda” to “Have dinner with Renzo Piano” and “Tour the Colosseum.”) Exactly who coined the phrase is obscure, but the term entered the popular consciousness decisively in 2007, with the release of the movie “The Bucket List.” Starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as geriatric terminal-cancer patients who undertake an implausible valedictory tour of excess—skydiving, visiting the Taj Mahal, and getting to the foothills of Everest—the film grossed more than a hundred and seventy-five million dollars, despite scathing reviews. The idea rapidly spread to a younger generation: in 2010, MTV’s “The Buried Life” featured three fresh-faced Canadian guys travelling across America and checking items off their list, among them “Streak a stadium and get away with it,” “Throw the most badass party ever,” and “Spend a night in jail.”

The expression derives from “kicking the bucket,” a euphemism for dying of obscure origin but blunt and vivid suggestiveness. (Etymologists suggest that the bucket being kicked is not, as we might imagine, a pail, but a corruption of the Old French word buquet, meaning a balance or beam, from which slaughtered animals were suspended.) Compiling a bucket list is both an exercise in wishful self-improvement—learning to speak French, training to run a marathon—and an expression of to-hell-with-it cupidity. It can express the longing to shed inhibition, as if living life to its fullest meant dispensing with socially constraining rules. The felicitous rhyme with “fuck it,” the plosive “b” substituting for the fricative “f,” surely goes part of the way to explaining the term’s appeal.

A small library could be filled with the books that have been written for those who feel their imaginations inadequate to the task of summoning a roster of ambitions or desires. Such books seem designed to spur new desires and ambitions, since no one person’s private longings could possibly be large enough to encompass their range. (The very drawing up of a bucket list might provide its own small satisfaction: at least that’s done.) Patricia Schultz’s “1000 Places to See Before You Die”—Cliveden, the Grand Canyon—has spawned an entire catalogue of spinoffs for its publisher, Workman, including the forthcoming “1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” by Mimi Sheraton. (Some of these, such as frozen Milky Way bars, seem likely to hustle you along a little more quickly.) Goodreads offers a “Books to Read Before You Die” list, which includes not just “Middlemarch” and “Pride and Prejudice” but also Mitch Albom’s potentially useful primer, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

There are countless interactive tools for filling one’s bucket or examining the contents of someone else’s. The iWish app allows you to input your life goals—suggestions range from “Dive the Galapagos Islands” to “Raise a Happy & Healthy Child”—and have them always only a finger-swipe away. calls itself “a web-based personal intentions system”; its users can list their goals, post updates about their accomplishments, and evaluate the goals of other people. This last is voyeuristically fascinating and oddly poignant: the two-hundred-and-ninety-five-goal list of one young woman in Hyderabad, which includes “Hand out lemons wearing a shirt that says life,” “Look like a boy,” “Do something I’m not supposed to,” “Be surprised,” and “Be unbelievably surprised,” is a young-adult novel in note form.

Whence the appeal of the bucket list? To stop and think about the things one hopes to do, the person one hopes to be, is a useful and worthwhile exercise; to do so with a consciousness of one’s own unpredictable mortality can be a sobering reckoning, as theologians and philosophers recognized long before Workman Publishing got in on the act. That life is nothing more than a preparation for death is a commonplace in religious systems of all stripes. In premodern times, when death was a far more proximate inevitability than it can seem to be today, cherishing the prospect of celestial transcendence might well provide relief from quotidian suffering—even more so than harboring the hope of learning to skydive buoys the bored individual of today. But the consolations of the contemporary bucket list, too, can be far from trivial, even if some of the items to be found therein might seem so. Millions have watched a short video of Robin Williams sending greetings to a twenty-one-year-old New Zealand woman with terminal cancer, whose bucket list reportedly included not just the wish to meet the actor but the aspiration of living long enough to see her infant daughter’s first birthday.

As popularly conceived, however, the bucket list is far from being a reckoning with the weight of love in extremis, or an ethical or moral accounting. More often, it partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through, rather than being worthy of repeated or extended engagement. Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.

This is the YOLO-ization of cultural experience, whereby the pursuit of fleeting novelty is granted greater value than a patient dedication to an enduring attention—an attention which might ultimately enlarge the self, and not just pad one’s experiential résumé. The notion of the bucket list legitimizes this diminished conception of the value of repeated exposure to art and culture. Rather, it privileges a restless consumption, a hungry appetite for the new. I’ve seen Stonehenge. Next?
What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death? These places, experiences, or cultural objects might be those we can only revisit in remembrance—we may never get back to the Louvre—but that doesn’t mean we’re done with them. The greatest artistic and cultural works, like an unaccountable sun rising between ancient stones, are indelible, with the power to induce enduring wonder if we stand still long enough to see.

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