My Bucket List

Roger Ebert was offended by the movie The Bucket List. He thought it made a mockery of the seriousness of terminal cancer. Maybe he took the film a little too seriously.

My gripe with the movie is different: while it pays tribute to friendship and its redemptive value, it fails to come to grips with the the real value of an adventurous life. The Jack Nicholson character, true to form, is all about exotic thrills, the rush of adrenalin, and tempting fate. The Morgan Freeman character has more depth, but as a comparison with Nicholson, that’s not saying much. Both men are self-absorbed; neither can place “the list” into the context of purposeful living.

G. K. Chesterton

Today I read these words by G. K. Chesterton: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Chesterton could see the adventure in the ordinariness of life. Anything can be regarded with the lens of expected surprise. But the inconveniences of life, even the most mundane, afford real opportunities for adventure—a kind of living beyond the ordinary without demanding a change in circumstances. It all depends on perspective.

Today I had an adventure. Not a big, spectacular one that I can check off my own personal bucket list. I had been shopping for something on Craig’s List and had an appointment at a seller’s house. When I rang the doorbell, dogs began barking. Nothing unusual about that. But suddenly, one dog, yelping wildly, sprang through the screen door and lunged at me. As I reared back, the dog grabbed my shirt-tail in his teeth.
I wasn’t injured, but my favorite summer shirt is in tatters.

The adventure potential of this experience really was a matter of perspective. I didn’t like the sudden conversion of my shirt from something that was a pleasure to wear to a rag more worthy of washing the car. But I did feel oddly energized by this close encounter with physical danger. And I can imagine wearing the shirt in future as a badge of courage, so to speak. For a moment I was reminded that real surprises happen. I’m not generally fearful of dogs. And I didn’t have time for fear in this case. The dog—like my own dog, an Australian shepherd—was on me in an instant. But as the dog fled, I felt the exhilaration of a survivor.

In the modern world, we often have to manufacture experiences of that kind. Some go in for extreme sports, others for extreme travel. I like sea kayaking and motorcycling, each activity with its distinctive set of challenges and array of risks. But they aren’t things I have to do, in the utilitarian sense of “have to.” If I have to do them it’s because modern life is a little too humdrum.

Isn’t that why we have “bucket lists,” adventure ticks that we hope to get out of our system before we pass on?

Claudia Root and Jerry Root

Today I had an email message from a good friend who lives in another state. Completely incidental to the message of his email was an attached photo of him and his wife in a bi-plane over the Puget Sound. They’re sporting goggles and leather headgear—and broad smiles, of course—in a tight picture that says, “We’re having a blast, and we’re doing it together!”

I love the Puget Sound, and I love flying. I’ve dreamed of making a pontoon trip there some day. But it never occurred to me to view the San Juan Islands from altitude in a vintage bi-plane. I’ve now added that to my personal bucket list.

But I have another goal, as well—to remember Chesterton’s spin on the ordinary and the inconvenient. With a perspective like that, everyday is a bucket-list kind of day, every day an opportunity to check something off the list that I didn’t know was on it!

Presidential History: Rutherford B. Hayes

Presidential biography is a long-standing interest of mine. I’ve read more about Theodore Roosevelt than any other historical figure. He would be my favorite in many respects. But I also especially enjoy learning about lesser-known Presidents, like Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Since my Reading Jags often include forays into the arena of Presidential history, I’ll include periodic posts about these jags. This post is dedicated to the nineteenth President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893).

Jag for July 23, 2008

Jenny Drapkin posted her blog at today. She acknowledges that Hayes was widely known as a man of integrity. But she attributes considerable responsibility surrounding his controversial election to the man himself. This is probably unfair. Hayes went to bed on the night of the election expecting his opponent to win. His opponent expected the same result. Drapkin recounts a few of the details that determined the somewhat shocking outcome. To say the least, close elections raise special problems.

The Hayes vs. Tilden horse-race was made more complicated by the continued festering of North/South relations. It was still a period of reconstruction, and there were no easy solutions. Who can say what a Tilden presidency would have been like? As it was, the Hayes presidency lasted for only a single term. (The Wikipedia entry on Hayes indicates that Hayes had promised to serve for one term only and had advocated for one-term presidencies of six years. It might be enjoyable to hear a conversation between Rutherford B. Hayes and Franklin Roosevelt on that point—and why not include George Washington, for good measure?)

The White House Biography points out that Hayes, who was from Ohio, sought to establish stronger support for the Republican party in the South. But those with Republican sensibilities considered it too risky to exhibit public sympathy for this effort. (Some will be surprised to learn that Mark Twain campaigned for Hayes, the Republican who wrote in his diary, “the best religion the world has ever had is the religion of Christ.”)

Drapkin’s article comes at an interesting time, in the pre-convention days of the contest between senators John McCain (Republican) and Barack Obama (Democrat). She alludes to “the current political process,” and mentions the “chad debacle of years past,” but she doesn’t explicitly reference the current contestants. Her brief article is a reminder that intrigue has marred presidential politics for a good long while. She suggests that what our generation has witnessed is comparatively benign.

It is useful to sober up on the smelling salts of history when we are in the midst of an election period with so much at stake and such partisan division.

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