Why dogs don’t make lists.

March 22, 2012 § 10 Comments

It is 1:23 and Moo is asleep on her pillow.

Along with eat, run, scratch and stretch,”afternoon nap” would be on her to-do list.

If dogs made lists.

They don’t.

They go with the flow.

Open the refrigerator door and Moo will be instantly awake, motivated by the two things that will get any dog up from a nap. Need: hey, I’m hungry! And opportunity: whoa, the refrigerator’s open!

Dogs have no future. They live comfortably in the present.

Lists are for those who inhabit the present carelessly and sporadically.


We slide back and forth between past and future giving the present a fleeting glance as it streaks by. Usually we are watching the road ahead, projecting ourselves forward, as if by doing so we could get a jump on things.

A list is an attempt to organize and control what hasn’t happened yet.

The goal can be modest. All we want to do is remind ourselves of our future plans without committing them to memory. If, like a dog our life choices were a mere half-dozen, our lists would be quick and simple and probably unnecessary, but the human set of options is endless.

Where a dog’s list would have the verb “eat,” with no object, our “eat” list would be painfully specific: half gallon 2% organic milk, Smuckers Natural Peanut Butter (chunky), one pound of butter (unsalted). So we construct what Gabriel Garcia Marquez termed “a paper memory.”

Our paper memory ensures the butter we bring home will be unsalted. This elaborate choice making uses up a lot of our time and covers the backs of many envelopes, but these lists carry no particular emotional weight.

“My New Year’s Resolutions” is an example of a list that does. When we make it we are yearning toward a future that will be different because of these changes we plan to make in our lives and in ourselves. One year from now we will be thinner, speak French, and will have definitely painted the bathroom.

In a scattershot world lists are comfortingly linear. Set at the regular interval of lines on paper, reading the items on a list is like looking down a string of telephone poles that stretches off into the distance. Although endless, we can take each in turn, and then cross it off the list.

Crossing-off is one of the great satisfactions of making a list.

A list is a handoff from our present self to a future self—the one who is going to have to do the work. My present self firmly believes the future Adrian will be much more competent, the list easier for her to execute.

A list can be a way of collecting data. Is this the warmest March on record? Although this appears to be a looking-back, a list is always a way of looking forward. Is the planet heating up? What’s the trend? What does the past say about where we’re headed?

We are so future bound that we take careful inventory of our stuff and then enshrine it in the legal list called a will. Although gone we still want a say in what happens tomorrow.

I am not an inveterate list maker. They scare me. Committing things I must do to paper seems to increase their weight. But there are two states in which I will make a list. They are best explained with metaphors, both of which involve paint.

When I feel like the target in a paintball war, everyone but me armed and getting off round after round, I make a list. By listing their demands I create some distance. When written down, all in the same egalitarian size, one per line, I can assess their relative merit.

When gripped by centrifugal panic, my thoughts spraying out like spin-art I make a list. This is an attempt to collect myself in the place I most often collect myself, which is on paper.

A list imposes order on what is, in fact, overwhelming chaos. It separates the things we need to deal with from everything else. It creates a small moment of silence.

But most of all a list supports the human belief that the future can be managed from a remote location called the present, and so we reach for it, blind to what is right in our hands.

The “now” of Moo dozing on the floor is inadequate. As is the “now” of experiencing this warm Thursday afternoon in Tallahassee because tomorrow I have to be in Athens, Georgia for a book conference and I don’t think my talk is quite ready, and do I need to wash a pair of tights to wear for my presentation, and what time did I say I’d pick up that rental car?

Better make a list.

Sometimes the dog part of my brain whimpers.  It begs me to not think, to just be. Maybe even take a nap.

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§ 10 Responses to Why dogs don’t make lists.

  • craig reeder says:

    no wonder dogs don’t write novels, give speeches, organize community libraries, sing and dance, teach kids to read, and grow gardens!


  • Richard D. says:

    The wisdom carried by in your words on paper always astonish me, Adrian. Dogs live in the present because they have no language, no words to express how they feel, except for barks and whines and wagging tails and wet noses. Your gift is of words that make us pause and consider the present and future. Unfortunately, they also keep us awake.


    • I have a grandson who is learning to speak in both Italian and English with the desperate speed of someone who is compelled to communicate right now.

      Language must be the human response to the need for nuanced communication–if it did not exist I suspect that Matthew would be inventing it right now.

      Language entangles us in all its splendor and all its noise. It helps us express and imagine moments other than the present, and so we do.

      I think dogs are content without language; we would never be.


  • Living in the present means leaving behind thoughts. All that we plan, that we believe and that we know are just thoughts. Thoughts have no substance other than the fact that we cling to thoughts.

    You cannot exactly “empty your mind of thoughts” but you can recognize that the ideas and plans spinning in your head are just thoughts.

    Your posts are always thoughtful.
    Thanks for this one.


    • Thanks for always reading and commenting. I really appreciate it. And thanks for the reminder that thoughts have no substance. They are so powerful they make us go to war and jump off bridges and buy inappropriate footwear. it is easy to forget that they have no weight and that they can be changed on a moment’s notice.


  • Acck. That didn’t sound right. “Thoughtful” – I hope you know what I mean – more accurately your posts place us in the present.


  • KM Huber says:

    I am not one for lists, although sometimes I make them only to leave them where I will never find them again, very akin to your “sorting out” of certain moments or situations. Like you, I feel the weight of words on screens but especially on paper. For me, lists require a kind of certainty that I no longer believe so I wait and watch.

    Beautifully written, Adrian.



  • Thank you Karen.

    I take words on paper more seriously too. Words on a screen are a cloud of gnats, more bothersome than serious. Words on paper have gravitas.


  • Eva says:

    Amy i read your blog and it realy help me see things difrent youe my sister and i always look up to you your an insperarion im a fighter and god is with me i will beat this thank you love you always God Bless you and the family


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