An Interview with Karen Rizzo
Nicole Gregory: In Things to Bring, S#!t to Do . . . and other inventories of anxiety, you reveal the history of your inner life as written in the lists you’ve kept. Do you think that making lists is a way of trying to control what we can’t control?
Karen Rizzo: I think we do make lists partly because they give us an iota of control, or at least the illusion of control. With a list we really do think we know where the day is going. Making a list eases my anxiety. Otherwise I could stand in the middle of a room and stare without knowing what to do next. With a list I think, “Wow, I’ll do No. 1! And if I do, then I’ll get to No. 2.” I’ve always felt that a certain part of making lists is a Walter Mitty thing: “I’m going to say this so that will happen. This time everything will work out according to plan.” I imagine whole scenarios in my head that, of course, seldom go according to plan.
NG: How did you happen to save your lists from childhood?
KR: There weren’t that many. My parents saved very little. Whenever we moved, we had to pare down and be ruthless about throwing stuff out. So I ended up with only four or five cardboard boxes of belongings from my childhood, and when I was going through them, I found two old journals. They were called diaries back then and they had keys and locks although you could probably open them with a pin. My first diary was purple with a felt horse on the front, and inside were questions like what’s your favorite color, song, person — and I answered them. It was interesting to find but fairly ordinary.
NG: How did you get the idea of writing the book?
KR: I was invited to a baby shower where everyone was asked to present wise words in lieu of gifts for the mother-to-be. I couldn’t come up with anything profound. I was scribbling a grocery list when suddenly I had this idea of how fifteen years of grocery lists illustrate an arc of a life, from being single, to being in the throes of romance, to trying to get pregnant, to being pregnant and so on. Lists are a special look into each of those periods. I’d been writing personal essays for years, and I wanted the whole form of the book to be like an organic clothesline that I could hang all these essays on. So out of items on the lists came short episodes or stories.
NG: Is list-making primarily a women’s thing — it seems to me that women keep journals more than men and do more grocery shopping than men — do you think they make lists more than men do?
KR: Yes, for the most part. But I was shocked to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, about a high-powered exec who has a 200-item list for every weekend. It had things on it like, “Buy bagels. Give kids breakfast.” It made me laugh. Here’s a man who’s got this big list and wants it all done by Monday morning. For weekends my list has maybe five things on it, starting with “Take B-vitamins. Take kids to party.” My husband makes lists when we’re getting ready to go on vacation. He’s secretive about his lists. My lists are plastered all over the house, but Jim doesn’t mind. In fact he lists vicariously through my lists! He’ll think of something and instead of making his own list, he’ll say, “Do you have that on your list, honey?”
NG: Why do you tend to make lists on tiny scraps of paper and on backs of envelopes and receipts rather than on formal pads of paper titled “TO DO”?
KR: ‘Cause that’s just too queer to use one of those printed to-do pads! And if it’s on a big piece of paper, the list looks too overwhelming. If it’s on a little scrap, you can just stuff it in your back pocket. You can travel with it. I take a scrap of paper, fold it in half twice, then write my list on it.
NG: Do you use the computer or a Palm Pilot to make lists?
KR: No, they’re only on scraps of paper. Making lists is not often an organized function for me. They’re written on the spur of the moment — in the bathroom, when I wake up at 4 in the morning, or driving to pick my kid up at guitar practice. I have a cell phone and a computer and that’s all the technology I can deal with right now.
NG: What kinds of reactions are you getting from people who’ve read the book?
KR: Mostly people comment on the emotions that the book brings up for them. People I hardly know have gone out of their way to tell me how the stories touched them and made them laugh. One person said he couldn’t believe he was laughing on one page and trying not to cry on the next.
NG: You describe in the book, very poignantly, how your aging dad made lists out loud to help himself remember things. What were some of those lists?
KR: My father was trying to hang onto the present and reality, so out of the blue he would say, “Now my brothers are Dan, Michael, Peter, he died many years ago…” When he would finally finish the list, he would take a breath. Or he’d say, “Before that house, we lived on Lewis Road and before that we lived in the house with the Meroke Indian branches…” He’d put these lists together to weight him to the planet, to be here, because at that time he had one foot ready to leave.
NG: Do you come from a family of list makers?
KR: After my dad died, I was cleaning out his apartment, looking for something really telling about his life, some secret revealed, and found all these lists he’d made on the backs of envelopes and bills. They were all so simple. “Call Karen” was often at the top. When he started losing his memory, making lists became more important. My mom always made lists too.
NG: Have you ever found yourself making lists out loud?
KR: Yes! When I’m in the shower in the morning — I can really think when I have hot water pouring over me — I make a list out loud of what I have to do in the next 20 minutes. It’ll be like a mantra: “Under eye cream, water for the car, coffee, good shoes. Under eye cream, water for the car, coffee, good shoes.” I’ve got so much going on that if I can remember this mantra, I’ll be all right.
NG: Many poets have said that listing is poetry, and that many of their poems begin as lists, and that some are ultimately just that. Do you see this connection?
KR: I can absolutely see that connection to poetry. I’ve always thought that some lists, especially the ones we make in our heads to try and remember, whether they involve the grand or minutiae of life, are like mantras (though maybe not as magical). Maybe it’s a matter of semantics. Mantra . . . poetry . . . song . . . formula, even. The definition of poetry is such a subjective thing, yes?
NG: “Dad to neurologist” is on your list from January 2002, and from there you recount an experience of feeling like you’re simultaneously a child with your brother in the car, and an adult with your son and aging father. How did that happen?
KR: It’s a moment that took place once when I was getting in the car. My son Drake was in the back seat and I was waiting for my dad to get in, and I thought we were waiting for my mother (who died in 1987). I thought Drake was my brother and I was eight. It was less than a nanosecond and then it went away.
Another time it happened when my father was living here in L.A. and I was driving up Fair Oaks in Pasadena one day, thinking of too many things at the same time. I had too many thoughts converging, and when I came back to the fact that I was driving up some wide avenue, I thought I was on Long Island. In that moment I was in a whole different universe.
Fatigue plays a big part in this. It shakes you loose so you’re scrounging around in the gray matter in your head. It’s like when you’re trying to find something in your closet and suddenly you find this baseball glove from 1972 and you think, “Where’d that come from?” and you get lost on a whole other tangent. It happens in a literal sense and in your imagination. You can be thinking intently on something which causes you to grab the wrong jacket, the one you haven’t worn in four years, which puts you on a whole new train. “This jacket, oh I remember the last time I wore it I was at . . . .”
NG: Your mother and father, both now dead, are major characters in the book. Do you find that they occupy a lot of your thinking?
KR: Not as much as I imagined they would. I sometimes make myself stop and think about them as a way to visit them. My kids’ middle names are my parents’ names and though I’m not big on marking big dates, it’s coming up on 20 years since my mom died, and I want the kids to know that I think of my parents. We’re trying to figure out a way to commemorate the day.
NG: Did writing about your parents re-connect you to them? Do your kids ask you about them?
KR: Oh yeah, I had to think about my parents constantly. And yes, Drake and August ask more questions now than they ever did. They want to hear stories. They’ll say “Tell me a story about Papa Tony.” They can’t grasp the fact that the parent I talk about is that old person in a picture. My mom was pretty colorful, so they love stories about her. I told Drake about class trips that my mom came on with us, when my class went to places like the Museum of Natural History or the Bronx Zoo on a big yellow school bus. My mom was always assigned to be with the boys who were hard to handle. She’d say things like, “Sit your ass down!” And these boys liked her. I was embarrassed having the bad boys in my group, but it happened because my mother could handle them better than any other parent. I can still hear her saying to David Delasanto, “David, that’s bullshit and you know it.” He’d laugh and he’d stop his bullshit.
NG: The other main characters of your book are your husband and two children. Are you sometimes amazed that you’re now a grown-up mom in your own family?
KR: Yes, completely amazed! It’s another one of those time traps. I think, “I’m the older sister . . . oh no, wait, I’m the mom!” And sometimes I’m really amazed when I channel my mother. I think I’ve learned so much from parent-toddler classes and reading touchy-feely parenting books, then abruptly I’ll become my mother and say something to my nine-year-old over dinner at night like, “Choices? I’ll give you choices. You can eat what I made for you or you can have a bowl of rocks.”
NG: What advice do you have for mothers who want to be writers?
KR: Don’t write the way you think you should write, or how it should sound. A few people have given me stories about their lives. When they tell it to me, it’s a good story. But they write it how they think an essay ought to sound, so it’s not so good. Write down what you want to say. Don’t edit that first draft. Put the critic on a chair in the closet.
NG: The part in your book about your single life in New York is especially funny. Do you miss those days?
KR: No. I feel like I did it and I could never recreate the 80s in New York, even if I went to the same spot with the same people.
NG: I have to ask: Do you sometimes put things on your list that are super easy, just so you can mark them off as done?
KR: Oh yeah, like “Brush teeth.” I did that! Well, I will do it. Anyway definitely before I leave the house. Or “Take vitamins.” “Take down the Christmas tree.” That’s on my list today.
Another good list is all the people you’ve slept with before your husband. But these are not lists you want to leave around the house. What if you have an accident and you’re lying in the hospital with a broken leg and your kid finds it and says, “Look at this list Mom made! Who are all these names?”
When I’m on the treadmill at the gym, I try remembering friends from kindergarten or third grade — and their addresses. I try to remember at least the streets. I could do Soduku I guess, but this is more interesting to me.
NG: Your book really beautifully describes that dramatic transformation from single woman to mother, and also from being a New Yorker to an Angeleno. Do you think readers who haven’t lived in either of those places will be able to relate to your book?
KR: I think anyone can relate to milestones and transformation, to losing people and finding people, going down a path you’d never thought you’d go down, thinking there’s a right or wrong way to go. I think everyone can relate to growing up and screwing up. And when you have kids, you worry about them and just want them to be happy, to have a certain life, with clean air and you realize these are universal wants. In your 20s you think, “Nobody’s like me. Nobody thinks like me. Nobody understands.” But then you get older and at some point you have to give that up, and you realize you have a lot in common with other people. It makes you a little more tolerant.