I Like: Lists

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 | |

A few years ago, whilst on a trip to a suburban Auckland supermarket, I picked up a discarded shopping list. It was an innocuous enough act - I was curious to see what someone else would buy, and scanned through the list hoping to find something humourous, like KY Jelly or something. As it turns out, the list was far more glorious than I could ever imagine. Instead of being just a few things that a person would want to collect, the list I read showed me that what people choose to buy at the supermarket really does speak volumes about who they are and what they're doing. Let's take a look at that first list.


"This is a woman," was my first thought. "Purple pen and embossed paper? This has got to be a woman." My belief was further corroborated when I read through what could only be described as any woman's thought pattern.

1 x Humus. [sic]
1 x bag lettuce.

She's making a healthy salad. But wait, she's changed her mind.

2 x Humus.
2 x bag lettuce.

She's making more than enough for herself.

Reading on, she adds tomatoes, tuna, chick peas and "plastic coriander" (by which I can only assume she means one of those plastic sleeves of fresh coriander you get from the grocery section). Then, she adds, "bottle wine".

The next three terms are what made me the most happy however. Three words written in rushed handwriting, presumably as one is running out the door or standing somewhere in the supermarket.


Someone's been thinking about a sleepover. Here's hope the lucky person got to stay for breakfast.

After I picked up "first date", as I now refer to it, I started to pick up more interesting shopping lists. Few were as glorious as the first, but many contained interesting little ditties that showed me a little bit more about how people's brains work; how people use shopping lists less as direct orders and more as personal reminders.


"Maria lunch"




"Bird Grit"

And my favourite,


Sometimes the lists weren't as funny as they should be; sometimes they were a little sad.

They were the lists of the old and sick,

The busy and desperate for silence,

And the cautious.

"I have to have protein + veg for dinner to repair cartlidge [sic]"

They made me stop collecting them for a while. I realised that I had a (sometimes hypothetical, sometimes very literal) window into people's minds that I wasn't supposed to know about. I started worrying about what I wrote on my shopping lists, and was very careful not to leave them behind in shopping carts. I guess I gave up the ghost of shopping's past. Until November, when I was given the best list I've ever seen. My friend Anni found it at a party, which she says "was full of young goths who wear velvet and do tarot reading in their spare time". I chuckled as she handed the list over, turned it over and thought to myself,


"Man, I love humans so much."

My mother was an Olympic gymnast trainer

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | |

My father was a very famous, very wealthy hotellier - he owned a large chain of hotels around the world. My mother travelled the world, training gymnasts for Olympic games. They met in the lobby of his hotel in Prague. Together they served a very practical function in each other’s lives – they were each other’s travel partner and red carpet accompaniment and second lofty income; they were not, however, each other’s love. Not once in the nine years I knew my father did I see them touch, kiss, hug or laugh. It was as if this was a life of transactions, and they were content with living it.

I was one such transaction, and a poorly managed one at that.

In the face of such dry practicality, I acted out. Often asked to sit quietly and read at the dinner table as they organised their accounts and their meal simultaneously, I would draw pictures on the table using peas and gravy. I would wet my serviette in my glass of water and throw the sodden mess at the roof, where it would stay for months. I would finish my meal, then tear sections out of the novel I was reading and eat it, page by page. “Stop being such a child,” they would say.

Special occasions were much the same. Generally they would be jet-setting, with father opening new hotels and mother playing the happy wife beside him, or mother posing with a collection of lithe and limber Ukrainian gymnasts as father watched on in the background. On the odd occasion however, they would be around for my birthday or Christmas, I would receive small, practical gifts with small, practical cards.
To: Agnes
From: Mother and Father
Handkerchiefs were hardy perennials on present-giving days, as were new ribbons for my typewriter. By the time I was eight, I had enough handkerchiefs to cover one of father’s hotels when it rained, and was precocious enough to say this to him. He grew increasingly tired of my behaviour, and not ten minutes after present giving had occurred, retired to his study to drink whisky and smoke from a pipe. When father retired to his study, he was not to be disturbed. All we would hear was the occasional instruction yelled at my mother, who would ignore him, stare at me, and then retreat to her own haven – the exercise studio – leaving me in the living area alone.

On my tenth Christmas Day, I disturbed father in his study.

Storming in with all the grace and charm of a wildebeest, I startled father and made him spill his drink. “This handwriting is YOURS!” I screamed. “Yes, dear, I always write the cards,” he replied. “Why the devil are you acting this way? Calm down.” Thrusting two identical cards in his face, I shrieked, ‘THIS one is from you and mother, and THIS one is from Santa. It is YOUR handwriting, father! There is no Santa! I hate you. I HATE YOU!” Mother was standing in the doorway, dressed in her pink exercise clothes. Her lips were pursed in muted anger and her gaze was fixed on father. As I left the study, I dropped my voice to it’s lowest point; to the pair of them, spat, “As you have left me with no further childhood to enjoy, I will stop acting like a child. Thank you mother, and thank you father.” For the first time in my life, mother looked suitably upset.

The next day, father left.

As was the way of my family, neither my mother nor I shed a tear. We did not speak of my father again and removed all memory of him from the home; the study became a storage and sewing room. We would eat dinner solemnly and silently, with mother doing the accounts and me reading quietly at the table’s opposite end. Sometimes I would look up to find her staring at me with a sadness in her eyes that I had not seen before. I would smile awkwardly and return to my book.

On Christmas Eve that year, an airmail envelope addressed to me was delivered. In the envelope I found ten photos of Athens, a cheque for a sizeable amount of money, and a note typewritten on hotel letterhead:
To: Agnes
Merry Christmas, child
From: Santa
The years went by and the letters kept arriving – the locations grew more exotic, the photos more beautiful and the cheque’s sum more generous. The photos were so inspiring that I began charting them on a map, and hung each shot on my wall. When photos of paintings inside The Louvre arrived on my sixteenth Christmas, I spent the cheque on art supplies and began painting the scenes delivered each year. I kept each painting in mother’s storage room, hoping that one day my father would return from this jet setting and have a collection of his travels on canvas. I dreamed of the day he’d return, when he would see what I’d made of his generous presents – and myself. I knew he would be proud to reinstate his study and have my paintings in there with him.

On my 35th birthday, I signed a deal with a gallery to have my work exhibited. I arrived late for dinner at mother’s, and found her dead on the floor of the dining room. A lavish meal was steaming on the beautifully set table - no novels or accounts were to be seen.

Weeks later, I cleared out mother’s storage and sewing room. She had stowed away her sewing machine and set up my old typewriter. Next to it I found a box of old travel photographs, and a stack of various hotel letterheads.