“Hello,” said the stranger to my grandfather as she sat down next to him in the audience for my orchestra recital, “I’m Harry Bangasser’s sister.” Family lore, that. Because neither my grandfather nor anyone else in the family had the slightest idea who Harry Bangasser was, but also, of course, because of the name itself — Harry Smith simply wouldn’t have made the story funny.
As a family we were into names, taking a cue from my grandfather, whose favorite author was Dickens, and who was forever giving people silly nicknames. (My mother was Boggsy, short for Boggsden Q. Sninnyhoofer; my uncle was Pooj, no apparent relation to his longer moniker, J. Whiddybisder Whinch, and my grandmother was Smuckter — let’s just not get into the longer version. She called him Oscar, though his name was John.)
Amusing or simply good-sounding Dickensian names were repeated and circulated, or clipped from newspapers and sent through the mail, in some cases thousands of miles. All of this is to give some context as to why, this year and last, I read through hundreds of pages — thousands of names — in the L.A. White Pages to come up with a few dozen good names for the list issue. (See www.laweekly.com/ink/03/06/features-list1.php for A–K and page 12 for L–Z.) This sheds no light, however, on the larger question, which is: Why the urge to list? Is it genetic? Cultural?
To that end, I phoned Dr. Gerald Davison, head of the department of psychology at USC, hoping he could provide some insight. So far, Dr. Davison has not returned my call, no doubt because he is too busy running through the list of things he needs to do today. Either that or he has no idea why humans love to make lists. In any case, I know the feeling. As it happens, as I’m writing this, I have several lists going, primary among them the reasons I’d rather not be writing this right now . . .
I. Writing pretty much sucks (except when it doesn’t).
A. Writing introductions really sucks (always, because you’re creating something out of nothing, and even if you manage to come up with a reasonably cohesive piece, so what — it’s only an introduction).
II. I should be doing countless other things.
A. Things I Should Be Doing Other Than This
1. Read the kids’ Christmas lists
a) The Boy: Abercrombie things, Victoria’s Secret stuff
b) The Girl: Computers, camera lenses, ride cymbal
— No wait, I’ve got that reversed —
2. Buy things off the kids’ Christmas lists
3. Add up the receipts
4. Go to therapist
a) Discuss depression over financial woes and state of our consumer culture. And, of course, reasons to do this, or that. Make lists of pros and cons
5. Grocery shop
a) Need chicken, cucumber, bananas, cat food . . .
6. Read NY Times while watching football
a) Kansas City vs. Minnesota?
b) San Francisco vs. Philadelphia?
7. Read New Yorker(s)
8. Read book
a) Finish Geoffrey Wolff’s O’Hara bio
b) Start Michelle Huneven’s Jamesland
c) Anna Karenina (it’s still there)
9. Work out
a) Walk to Millie’s
b) Touch toes (at least once)
c) Meditate 30 seconds
10. Plan more lists for list issue
11. Edit the lists that have come in
a) Jerry Stahl on celebrity fuckups (see page 14)
b) David Corn on Bush’s lies (page 18)
c) Margaret Wertheim’s bioweapons (page 34)
d) Best in music, film, art, theater, food et al
12. Read phone book
So it goes: Each of the above mini lists could be followed by sublist after sublist. We begin our days making lists — things to do, faces to remember, people to call, numbers and e-mail addresses to write down. When we’re not making them, we’re consuming them: What is a newspaper or a magazine or a news broadcast, after all, if not a glorified, expansive list — of the day’s top stories, of people or events we should know about, of the famous and infamous? Details, quotes, bullets shot, numbers killed. The sports and cultural pages are replete with scores, statistics, league standings; best-sellers, top grossers, best new acts. Even our enjoyment of the arts has its list factor: What film- or theatergoer, music listener or book reader, doesn’t keep a running compendium of titles, great performances, favorite recordings? All the world is a list, when you get right down to it. And here we are — the Weekly’s third annual list issue.