I wasn’t angry. I didn’t hate my job. I wasn’t annoyed with capitalism, and I was indifferent to materialism. I wasn’t escaping emptiness, nor was I searching for meaning. I have great friends and a wonderful family. The dude two doors down invited me over for steak or pork chops—my choice—one Sunday, and I couldn’t even tell you the first letter of his name. Most of my teeth are natural.
I had enjoyed some nominal success: a few books to my name, a bunch of speaking engagements across the country, a new audio program for teenagers. Sure, the producers of The Amazing Race had rejected all five of my applications to hotfoot around the world—all five!—and my girlfriend and I had just parted ways, but I’d whined all I could about the race, and the girl wasn’t The Girl anyway.
All in all, my life was pretty fantastic.
But I felt boxed in. Look at a map, and there we are, a pin stuck in the wall. There’s the United States, about twenty-four square inches’ worth, and there’s the rest of the world, about seventeen hundred square inches begging to be explored. I looked back, and I looked forward. This life is serious: I want the wife, I want the babies, I want the business success, and I understand the work that is required ’til the wee hours to get them. But I didn’t want to leave any experience unlived before that happened.
I felt as if I was a few memories short, as if there was still time for me to go out there and get missing for a little while. Bust out the List o’ Good Times, sell my car, store my crap, stuff a backpack, buy a small mountain of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and hop on a plane. Just this once.
I first started to visualize this trip when I was in high school. Back then it was a dream, like playing basketball in the NBA, although I legitimately thought I was going to play in the NBA. Then, a year or so passed, and my NBA dream morphed into the A-division in Italy. I went off to college, and my dream settled on any one of the top leagues throughout Europe. By the time I graduated from college, I would have signed with any team, anywhere. I would have lived in a tent and hunted for my own food with a blowgun. I just wanted to hoop. Then my thirty-six-hour professional basketball career in Germany came to an end, and I flew home. I left to write my first book.
My dream to travel around the world wasn’t really that serious. Other things, domestic things, were on my mind. My first book got published; national media outlets flashed the cover on TV; I was invited to speak at a variety of venues. Then, I looked at the List o’ Good Times:
• Run a mile on the Great Wall of China.
• Sing karaoke in a foreign language.
• Castrate a wild bull.
• Tip a crisp $100 bill on a $20 tab.
• Read the Bible.
• Handwrite a letter from the heart.
• Grow a mustache for a month.
• Cut my hair into a mullet (at a different time than growing the mustache).
• Provide a month’s supply of food for an entire African village.
• Scuba dive in the Caribbean during winter.
• Watch a movie in an Asian language without subtitles.
• Pick up a hitchhiker.
• Attend the Super Bowl.
• Dress up as Batman and run around asking people abruptly if they’ve heard anything about a robbery in the neighborhood.
I made my list when I was a sophomore in college. The heavens had dumped a mountain of snow on us in North Andover, Massachusetts, and school had been called off. Everything was called off. Plows were barricaded in. The National Guard was on standby.
So I sat down to write. I had previously read a chapter in one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I think it was A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Grandmother’s Son-in-Law’s Estranged Best Friend’s Dog’s Wounded Right Leg for the Soul, Revised Edition. Some elderly dude had crafted an essay about how, when he was a young lad, he’d written out a list of the things he wanted to do with his life: climb this mountain, play that instrument, learn this language, etc. And then—get this—he spent his life actually doing them rather than talking about his list at cocktail parties. “Ah, yes. Scuba diving in the Caribbean. I’ve got that on my bucket list.”
I looked around my dorm room. I didn’t have any new books to read, homework could wait, TV seemed too easy a solution at the moment.
The list seemed like a good idea at the time.
Fast-forward a few years, and there I was, approaching thirty, fast—really, really fast—the List o’ Good Times staring back at me from the screen on my laptop, cursor blinking. One hundred forty-two items on that list. How long would this take me?
• Complete a marathon.
• Design the landscaping for my own house.
• Make a positive impact on a child’s life before I have children of my own.
• Obtain minority ownership in a professional sports team.
• Fish off the coast of New Zealand.
• Learn to jump while wakeboarding.
• Anonymously buy someone’s meal from across the restaurant.
• Climb Kilimanjaro.
• Smoke a Cuban in Cuba.
• Hug a koala.
• Ride an elephant.
• Bet my wad on the underdog in a cockfight.
• Learn to fly without a copilot.
• Randomly spend an hour cleaning up a littered area.
• Attend the World Cup.
• Make love on a beach.
This could take ten years, I thought. My boy Sipsey said, “Shep, this list is going to cost you three-point-four million dollars.” Even if I had another fifty years or so left on this planet, depending upon a stroke of luck here or there and what those chaps in lab coats come up with, I was still far short on money. I made the determination, right then and there: two years to save and one year to be on the road. One year to get Out There, meet people, volunteer, learn, and get my heart racing a little bit. One year to read. One year to hold an impoverished kid’s hand and tell her that her life can be whatever she wants it to be. One year to stand on top of a bridge, declare my dominion over the world, and jump. Maybe I can make a small difference—in my life and the life of someone else.
Asking yourself what you want to do before you die is a silly question, shifts focus to the wrong place. A setup for procrastination, surrendering your List o’ Good Times to retirement. Who said anything about dying? I was healthy and capable and had no fatal diagnoses on my record. Death, still presumably far away, didn’t even have a place in this conversation.
And a bucket list? To hell with a bucket list: that’s not the time to start living, when your doctor announces that that black spot fastened to your lung is malignant and inoperable, and, well, you just better go ahead and make sure your will is current. A bucket list? That always makes me laugh: Oh, shit! Now the clock is really ticking! Gotta go out and do everything I want to do before it’s too late!
This list belongs in the present. This—right now, today—this is our time to live, yours and mine. Quality years ahead, presumably, and we’ve already had some great experiences, met some great people, and created some great memories. Life is good. We ain’t mad.
But I still felt boxed in. Maybe I’d gotten a little soft. Maybe I’d neglected the best parts of life. Maybe I’d become too regimented.
I needed a little perspective. I’d be home soon to find a wife and conceive kids and construct a career, but right then I wasn’t worried about any of that. I needed to get out there, just for a year.
I needed a year to live.
So, here we go. You:
The high school kid with a thousand ideas for the future. Now is the time to harness your enthusiasm, start dreaming big.
The college student tossed into the blend of social and academic life, loving it but anxious about what’s next. Now’s the time to have your list handy.
The young professional, suffocated by a cloud of work and swearing that, “I’m missing out on something.”
The older professional, thinking you’ve lost your window of adventure.
And the retiree, lost in reminiscence and excited to go exploring once again.
And me, sitting in the Miami airport, a mouth full of chocolate and peanut buttery goodness, ten minutes from boarding a plane to Guatemala City, about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life…