Colour me this

Calgary Herald Jan 11, 2016 : I gave away a colouring book that a friend gave me for Christmas. You may have received one too. All of a sudden, adult colouring books are all the rage. I don’t know about you, but I did not see that one coming.

They’re a little more intricate than the ones I remember scribbling in with my friend Laura when we were kids. She was a careful colourer with her own shading style that I envy to this day — dark at the edges and progressively lighter as she moved into the middle. My style was a little more, let’s call it freestyle because messy sounds unpleasant.

Instead of Barbie’s adventures, these new books let you colour outside the lines with “stress relieving patterns” from pretty swirls and flowers to jungle animals, lost oceans and hidden forests.  There’s even a Sweary Colouring Book where you can spend hours colouring in your favourite expletives written out in gorgeous calligraphy.

I might have kept that one.

I did keep the pencil crayons that my friend thoughtfully included with the book I gave away. I’ve put them, tips down, in a glass jar on my desk. The non-business ends stick out like shiny manicured nails and I have big plans for them this year — the pretty pencil crayons are going to pretty up my lists. My sophisticated system includes backs of envelopes (the weekly list), sticky notes (sublists for each day) and pads I’ve lifted from hotel rooms (project lists). I write my lists in pencil. When I get really busy, I highlight items with a strangely calming neon yellow marker.

Every list maker has a preference. Danielle Gilbert, The Most Organized Woman I Know, uses only pen for her lists. When I called her up the other morning around nine, she’d already finished three. Gilbert writes her first list of the day in the margins of the crossword puzzle that she prints off every morning. “There’s no magic to it,” she says. “It’s a way to organize yourself.  A lot of people like to talk to their phone, I prefer the power of writing things down.”

Like all good list makers, Gilbert also likes the sense of accomplishment you get when you cross something off. “Lists kick me in the butt,” she explains. Which is exactly why they’re a booming business. One guy who writes about how to harness the power of lists to spur productivity has even trademarked GTD® for Getting Things Done (he may have the ® symbol, but I’d still put my money on Gilbert).

Lists can also be important cultural artifacts. The Smithsonian’s Archives of Art, for example, took some of their hundreds of thousands of lists on the road a few years ago. The typed, scrawled or sketched documents included what architect Eero Saarinen liked about his soon to be wife, art editor and critic Aline Bernstein. She is perceptive, generous, enthusiastic, beautiful and “terribly well organized.” Modernist painter Charles Green Shaw typed helpfully: “A Few of Those Things We Never Do” including, “Take that fishing trip with Jones” and “Save enough coupons to get a new bath-mat.”

Other people’s lists can be awfully entertaining.

Writer and philosopher Umberto Eco spent a year at the Louvre sifting through “the vertigo of lists” including one he found in a Chinese encyclopedia that divides the world’s animals into: “(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

In the The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, Eco argues that making a list helps usface the fear of death. “We like lists because we don’t want to die,” Eco told one interviewer. “It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death.”

And here I thought a good list was just a way to get through the week without pulling out your hair.

Whether I’m staving off death or just making sure to hit a deadline, I am looking forward to using my new pencil crayons to spruce up my lists. I hope my friend who gave me the colouring book isn’t offended, but I don’t think there’s room on my ‘to do’ for colouring. And I’m not sure it would relieve stress — another pal who cracked open a colouring book had to quit after an hour because her hand cramped up.

Instead I will enjoy colouring up sticky notes and hotel pads to create messy works of art, perfectly happy knowing they’re destined for the recycling bin, not the Smithsonian.


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