RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Life Lists

Over the holidays, on a volunteer gig, I found myself paired with a familiar-looking youngster. My mind raced to identify him: A former student? A neighbor? I tried a couple of lines of patter, hoping I’d figure it out.

He was a great kid. Ask him to move chairs, and he moved them. Ask him to go out in sub-freezing weather to carry something in, and he did it. And a great smile.

Then he said that he was only going to be in town for a few more days. On the 8th of January, he was off to the army. Ignoring the irony of the date — Jan. 8 is the date when war deaths occurred after a truce in one of the interminable wars that make US history — I held my tongue.

Then he told me he had been waiting for this opportunity, that he had lost 80 pounds over two years to be accepted, and it hit me. This was the chunky kid I had met in his high school when I was tabling for peace. That day, in the sunny high school atrium, he had told me about his family, his mom, his dream of being a soldier. He had told me his life story with his beautiful smile, saying he wanted to protect all these things.

Now, in that cold January basement, seeing him again, I felt like his old family friend.

“I’m all for patriotic service,” I said, “but why didn’t you try for the Peace Corps? Or TeachAmerica? Or Vista? Something that would make a difference.”

“The army is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the all-volunteer army. All the excuses — that military service helps a kid grow up, that it’s good discipline — are myths compared to the reality of service and the statistics. Kids come home missing limbs, with severe mental illnesses, to be homeless at worst and social misfits at best, but the conversation ends when the kid says, “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Because that’s what America is about — doing what we want — and only crazy adults, certifiably crazy, say that kids shouldn’t do what they want to do.

I’m not the first one to comment on our self-absorption: Americans think we’re on the planet to experience stuff.

There’s a new urge to write a what-I-want-to-do list, called a life list. If this kid was more sophisticated, he might have said that joining the Army is on his life list.

The life-list urge started with the best of intentions — bird watchers that collected sightings of rare or endangered birds. It kept the birder going long enough to count 50 species, then 100.

Then the life list became something for investment companies and travel agents to suggest to well-heeled clients. Go to all 50 states. See the antarctic and the arctic. Follow the Stones on their last concert tour. Crew at the America’s Cup race.

The New York Times has declared two new titles in their “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” best-sellers column. One is 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and the other is 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die.

You can almost hear the clicks of digital cameras.

I’m not against setting goals, but surely they should involve more than being a pair of eyeballs with a tush to sit in or on a vehicle. You, dear reader, can aim higher. You can leave the community better, not worse, than you found it. Here’s a life list you’ll never finish:

Work at least 10 hours a week for 10 weeks on a campaign you care deeply about.

Forgive somebody who has hurt you deeply, but make it clear that you are not compromising on your principles.

Turn off the lights when you’re last to leave the room.

Know the neighbors on all four sides of your place.

Buy 10% of your needs from artists, craftsmen, food producers that live within 10 miles of you.

Buy 10% more from a thrift store.

Buy the rest from merchants and producers that demonstrate a modicum of integrity.

Take a walk every day.

Learn about an issue that public policy can affect, like health care, the death penalty, sustainable energy, then work for a political session to fix it.

Recycle 90% of the trash you create.

Make friends with someone who has extremely different ideas from yours and try to understand where they come from.

Teach your best skill, for free, to at least 10 young people. This means any skill you have — cooking, fiddling, caulking windows, reading, training a dog, anything.

Bottom line: We can choose something important, or we can leave behind a shoebox filled with photo cards. The list is up to us.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2008

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