In my house, summer is a time of dreams. The children are sent to camps, where they are accepted as near bursting with creative, athletic, and mental abilities far too great for mere school. My wife Cynthia takes poster board and sets up a wish list for the family. Each member writes in something they would like to do before the end of August: a place they would like to visit, an activity they would enjoy. One year I wrote “swim in the ocean with my children," and weeks later on a trip to Long Island we stopped at Jones Beach to romp in the surf.
We call the wish list our vision board. I suggested the term, somewhat ironically, not long after hearing the term for the first time and learning what one was.
Women in our upper-middle-class neighborhood, a confidential informant told me, sometimes gather around piles of magazines with scissors and glue, creating collages of their ideal future. These "vision boards" feature self-actualizing statements, quotations, and symbols, maybe a shell for the beach house of their dreams or some other image of the good life.
To me, this sounded not so good. It was more like the usual consumption cast as a not-so-fulfilling quest, yet another example of a materialism that can imagine no higher end than itself, spelled out in a fantasy grammar of luxury goods whose most fluent speakers are the editors of lifestyle sections and taught to credulous strivers who bring to it the phony spirituality of self-help and the practical philosophy of the to-do list. As a magazine guy, I even felt implicated, as if I had just encountered some fundamentalist sect that had received the gospel of what was practically my own church and taken it far too literally.
Now, I am not a total crank. For starters, I happen to believe in to-do lists. At my job, such is the number and variety of projects that if I don't write it all down, something will be forgotten. And I often include maternal-sounding reminders to myself, such as "be nice," before, say, I head to a meeting where there is the potential for butting heads.
And I can do happy talk. The refrigerator door in my kitchen is a magnetic gallery of feel-good affirmations, some of which I even believe. Like most Americans, self-help is a kind of native idiom to me. Whenever Cynthia complains that I am taking some rant too far, I promise to reform and assure her that from now on I will be "positive and life-affirming."
I even get the "see, do" logic of the vision board and know it can work. A few years back, tennis great Andre Agassi mentioned in his memoir that his ex-wife, the beautiful Brooke Shields, hung a picture of Steffi Graf on their refrigerator, to inspire her to become more fit. It also inspired Agassi, who ended up leaving Brooke Shields and marrying Steffi Graf.
But I worry that all this busy accounting for the things you want creates a kind of ledger of dissatisfaction. Notice how these elaborate tributes to what we hope to become soon double, with very little effort, as writs of complaint against the lives we already have, all of it bristling against the possibility of acceptance or resignation. There is no c'est la vie in a vision board.
After this you won't be surprised that I take a dim view of bucket lists as well, those seemingly harmless plans to go skydiving, have dinner at the French Laundry, and ski the Swiss Alps before you die. Here's my objection: I don't think our peak experiences as tourists say much about the lives we lead the rest of the time.
The bucket list, I really suspect, is just a way to squeeze some high notes into a score mostly already written and dominated by middle tones. Such is my antagonism to the idea that I have started a list of things I probably won't do before I die. Not a list of regrets, but a list of preemptive write-offs. As statements they go, "I don't care if I don't do X before I die."
At the top of my list is running a marathon. Although I am a bit of a jock, I just can't see committing that much time to running nonstop for five or six hours. Jumping from an airplane is something of a temptation, because I am afraid of heights and it would be just short of impossible for me to do, but I can't see that it would make any difference if I did. African safari? I would learn much more about Africa by reading a few books.
What catchy name have I given to this nonitinerary? It would not be right to spell it out, so let's just say that it rhymes with bucket list but starts with a different letter of the alphabet.