241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

As entries, strike-throughs, spelling mistakes, re-entries, question marks, lists within lists, bullet-points, dashes, personalised bullet-points, squares, asterisks, circled entries, bold entries, ambitious entries and already-done entries are scattered across the page, the mind moves quicker than the pen to create this masterpiece in its initial form. Margins, the bottom of the list or the space in between the lines are an opportunity to add information that could not keep up with the mind or that were simply forgotten. At times, these secondary entries will appear in a different colour where an alternative writing tool has had to be used.

The creator of a list has no intention to design their thoughts but merely to order them visually in tangible form. The back of a card, an old envelope, some scrap paper, a notebook, a smart phone, a saved email draft, a train ticket or a post-it note provide the canvas for this mind montage to be drawn out.

The activity of list-making is both common to all yet entirely individualistic.There is a sense of urgency attached to something that is created on-the-go or in between activities and maybe it is the extent of this pressure that when making a list, normal writing conventions are ignored. Baselines are misused, words are written across them rather than on them; the ascenders on letters become muted; the descenders have added flamboyancy and the margins are no longer a no-go area for words but a place to fill with words, additional thoughts, numbers, sketches and question marks.

In a moment’s pause, a second thought is given to putting these thoughts into better order or form, perhaps in order of priority or alphabetically.This can be done at a later date. Sometimes, a complete re-draft of the list might be necessary. If it is a list of that type it can be prepared to make sense to others. It is at this point a design element might be added: colour coding, font selection, margin widths and line lengths.

There is an unspoken hierarchy to the various forms of lists that surround us in our daily lives.Train times, shopping lists, gift lists, hate lists, wish lists, to-do lists, today’s food specials, contents pages, registers, stock lists, missing lists, menus and guest lists. The different forms of lists are matched and paired with a tried and tested format. Registers are done alphabetically; shopping lists by memory, train times chronologically etc.

When a list finds itself in the hands of someone other than its author, different aspects of it might be scrutinised. The graphologist looks at the space between the lines and the curves or flicks of the letters, the size of the capital letters, the margins around the texts and the slant of the handwriting. The artist dreams up the story that precedes the list and what might follow. The curious looks around to find its owner. And others disregard it.

When an individual has shown extraordinary qualities or talents, the contents of a list they have made might become valuable to others. The lives of great scientists, musicians, actors, writers or designers are retraced and dissected by making their diaries or notebooks public. Whilst the content of their home is on show so is the content of their minds. Private information, messily scrawled across the page with changes and errors, supposedly give insight into a frame of mind. A laundry list suddenly reveals secrets of their lifestyle, an unseen side to their character.

Michelangelo's menu list

This information, analysis, format, or story is irrelevant to the author; the content is what is of interest to them. Their document is plagued with encryptions of coding, different methods of ‘crossing off’, ticks, strike-throughs and circles around ticks. Only some entries have numbers, where clearly an attempt at prioritising has been made. Some have dates next to them, for deadlines and finales, giving an added importance, a ticking reminder. These juxtapositions need not make sense to others.

Having been created, a list triumphantly sits at the top of important papers. It is versatile and can be used as a bookmark, a coaster or a space to sketch; it is embellished with important things, mustn’t forgets and mental notes. It ages well. Every mark on this creation is part of its existence. Folds in the page create creases across the unused printed lines; they battle with the thoughts sprawled across them. A new dimension is added to the form where the author has rolled the corners back and forth between their fingers.

A list by Charles Darwin

At the height of its usability, the list holds authority over its creator; unchecked items glare at you and make you feel guilty for the things you have not yet accomplished. A mutual resistance grows and other lists arise. Before the list has peaked it finds itself at the bottom of a bag, on a supermarket floor, wedged in a shopping basket, slotted in the corner of a sofa stuck to some crumbs, at the end of a book that was being read, in the shredder, at the back of another list, propping up a table, underneath a doodle, fallen on the pavement or sitting helplessly in the recycling bin, sitting next to the envelope that wasn’t chosen and another list that has efficient strikes through most entries.

On the off chance that a list may be revisited or found again by its creator, they might experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to cross off multiple items from the list. The single action of drawing a line, or the flicking of a tick enhances the achievement of completion.

They were stern, yet loving. He was never short of food, though it was rarely ever tasteful. Finishing off his plate was such a lengthy process that the last bites were usually cold. Nothing out of the ordinary happened while he played on the streets. Every now and then, his report card showed a fail. There was only one thing that worried him. Worry might be too strong a word; rather, something had occurred to him. Something must have gone wrong somewhere down the line. Something he could not grasp. No curse had befallen him, yet no blessing either.

The teacher often arranged the students in a line. After all, line was the most practical way to manoeuvre a group from A to B. From class to the schoolyard for recess, from the street to the swimming pool for swimming lessons. It was fun standing in line because at least you knew something unusual was bound to happen, unlike when sat your desk. But standing in line did not always foretell a pleasant event. If ever the class was suddenly asked to stand in line, one could rest assured that at the end of the hall you’d be awaited by a white coat holding an injection needle. And without fail, he was always the first to be called. To bare his arm, to stretch open his mouth. It took a while for him to notice. Initially he believed fate to be at work, until he began to realize that maybe there was something actually wrong with him.

At home and leaning over a never-ending plate of food, he began to inquire. His father took him aside, which was in itself a foreboding act. It must be something from the adult world, the scope of which was difficult to discern.

‘Thousands of years ago, in another country, the alphabet was invented. We’re not exactly sure why, but they decided that the letter A should come first. And it’s been like that ever since. Don’t think that the A will ever move to another spot in the alphabet. This is one of the few things in life that you can be certain of. Just like the A will always be the first letter of Aarsman. That’s why an Aarsman is usually at the front of a line. At least, when lines are arranged in alphabetical order. Of course, there are many other names that begin with an A. But, think about it, how many names do you know that begin with two As? That’s the reason Aarsmans usually are called up first. There may be times when this is unpleasant, but usually itturns out to be quite useful. Like when Sinterklaas comes to school, and you’re called up for presents. For example.’

Father saw wrinkles of thought forming on his son’s forehead.

‘You’ll have to bite the bullet, but you’ll see, in due time you’ll only ever want to be first. Why do you think we have sayings like the early bird catches the worm? And how about don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today?”

Holy smokes, Hans Aarsman thought. The name came from his father. And he went on and on about how wonderful it was to carry that name. But indeed, if something pleasant was to happen, the Aarsmans were always at the frontline.

“The early bird catches the worm.” And: “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” He repeated the idioms, tasted them, they lay ready on his lips. They came in handy if ever at a loss of words. He added a new one: “First come first served.” Some seemed to have been invented especially for little boys who had to stand at the front of the line against their will. But strangely, on his quest for new idioms, he encountered many that declared the very opposite. Like: “Haste makes waste,” and: “The first shall be the last.” In fact, idioms seemed to go in every possible direction. “Waste makes haste.”

The idioms were still contradicting themselves when one night it wasn’t he, but his brother, who was the last to finish his plate. He noticed this because the last bite to disappear into his mouth was not cold as usual, but in fact, lukewarm. Without truly deciding to, he started upping his tempo. For the first time, he saw the advantages to being fast. If something was to happen, he might as well get it over with immediately. The way he saw it was, when his classmates were standing, shivering standing in a row, he’d already had his injection. And while the others were still being examined, he could leisurely recline. Before he knew it, he’d gotten used to being a double A’d Aarsman.

And then things changed. He noticed how nervous he’d turn when not standing first for inoculations and dentists. He sped behind his desk the very moment he returned from school to do his homework. He scarfed down the food on his plate. With everything he did, he though: if it has to happen, then let’s have it done at once! And so, until this very day, he speeds through all, both the fun and the not-so-fun in record time. A birthday party? Don’t stick around too long. Don’t overstay your welcome. Should a bill or form arrive in the mail, Hans Aarsman will fill them in that very night and toss them into the nearest mailbox. Never owing anydebts. His name is always at the top of a list. There’s no avoiding that man! No group manifestation without his name at the top of the list. And that’s how I succeeded in being able to have my say right here. That’s one thing, but there’s another undeniable aspect to the last name.

It happened in the biology classroom. The first years of middle school were all about the body: blood circulation, digestion, the nervous system. Then came the other mammals, from big to small, from whale to mole. And then came the cold-blooded animals, the frogs and the crocodiles. He must have been sixteen when they came to the multicellular organisms. After which came the parasites, organisms that couldn’t sustain life on their own and needed a host to survive. This could be a plant, an animal, or a human. They crawled in, started their feeding, and laying their eggs. Ringworm, lintworm, hookworm. How they came from pigs, how cross contamination occurred. One by one, the teacher drew them on the blackboard. His thoughts were wandering – there were quite a few parasites to be named – when the sound of his classmates jeering jolted him back to reality. The teacher had drawn a creature on the board. A moon-shaped staff. Was it hairy? He doesn’t remember, but can clearly recall the title it was given: Aarsmade (n.b. translated from Dutch into: Arse Maggot.) The jeering was deafening, and they were pointing… at him. The precise nature of the aarsmade is still not entirely clear to him. When the teacher understood the cause for the uproar, she quickly wiped the drawing off the board. Never again was the aarsmade spoken of. By the teacher, that is. His fellow classmates eagerly entertained themselves for weeks, conjuring variations of his last name. How utterly inspirational nature can be. Go ahead, try it, it’s not hard to come up with a few yourself. At the time, buttguy and assdude were by far the most successful. Don’t react to their taunting, he had resolved, and he didn’t.

When the Americans started napalming Vietnam a few weeks later, man, plant, and animal were burnt to a cinder. The school was so caught up in these events that the creature and his unfortunate namesake were cast into the oblivion. Still, he was slightly fearful that the aarsmade would rear its head during examination week. What if one of the questions was: name three human parasites? But the teacher was sure to avoid, at all costs, any question that concerned that possibly hairy, moon-shaped little staff.

These days I sporadically hear a nearly inaudible chuckle when phoning an institution, or I’ll see the corner of a mouth turn upwards at a counter. The most spectacular would be the time I reported the disappearance of my bicycle. The policeman on duty pulled an earnest face: “I can’t believe they never told you that it hardly costs a thing to change your name! A strange name will even be changed for free!”

But I’d never do that. Above me and below me, the phonebook lists a plethora of Aarsmans. Do I abandon them? I know them all. They’re all descendents of my grandfather. Until recently, that is. In the 80’s, a small migration took place. Dozens of Aarsmans from outside Amsterdam moved into the city and connected themselves to a phone line. They, too, had understood the benefits of alphabetic order.

A few months ago, the newspaper wrote of an Olga Aarsman who competed in the miss Ajax pageants. She’s no cousin of mine, and she didn’t win.