Joseph P. Kahn

To-do list for the rest of your life

By Joseph P. Kahn
November 17, 2008
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For the record, Jeff Taylor and I both liked "The Bucket List" more than most film critics did (the Globe's Wesley Morris: "Hollywood deathsploitation"). Taylor, 47, is best known for having founded, the phenomenally successful online job site, followed by, the not-quite-as-successful social networking site for 50-somethings. He launched a third site this year,, built around what might be called post-bucket listings - i.e. obituaries.

In the movie, two terminal cancer patients compile a wish list of what to see and do before kicking the you-know-what. One (played by Jack Nicholson) is a crusty, relationship-challenged multimillionaire, the other (Morgan Freeman) an autodidactic auto mechanic. Money being no impediment, their list ranges from exotic adventures (skydiving, visiting Egypt's Great Pyramids) to more esoteric stuff ("witness something truly majestic"). It all ends, predictably, in a puff of high-altitude mysticism.

Freeman, blessed with the Voice of God, naturally gets in the last word.

All right, admit it. You cried, too.

Setting aside the movie's melodramatics, I'd wager it's the list itself that has staying power, blending as it does intimations of mortality with another boomer obsession, consciousness expansion - whether the drug of choice is Russian caviar or Eastern metaphysics. "Writing a list like that is the most personal thing you can do," posits screenwriter Justin Zackham, 37, in a DVD-version interview. "It means you're not really content with your life." In Zackham's case, it also means crossing the number one item off your bucket list (get a movie made by a major studio) before reaching the threshold age for diagnostic colonoscopy.

Nice work if you can get it. But it could be all downlist from here, bro.

Taylor agrees that the mere act of writing down goals can be life changing. Otherwise, he says, "You're not really working on it." He keeps his own to-do list (cool movies to rent, best hotel to book in Croatia) on his BlackBerry, updated periodically with friends' suggestions. His main quibble with the movie's premise? That it takes a terminal illness to jump-start the process. "In life, you typically do not have a deadline like that," he points out.

When Eons debuted two years ago, subscribers were encouraged to post their own top-10 lists for all to see, if not to copy. Many wished-for Tuscany vacations later, the site "morphed into a friendship engine," as Taylor puts it, reorganized around relationships and shared interests rather than expensive toys and travelogues. Boomers, he has concluded, are rewriting the rule book as usual, rejecting the logical progression that governed previous generations (marriage, career, child-rearing, midlife crisis, retirement, decrepitude) and mapping their own yellow brick roads to the Golden Years.

"We'll probably live 20 more years than our grandparents did," Taylor muses. "The question is, what are you going to do with those extra 20 years?"

Helping the needy, healing the planet, and shedding those pesky few extra pounds seem to be uppermost on many boomers' minds.

At, another site catering to the bucket brigade, webmaster Brian Bartel has witnessed a similar shift away from the purely material/experiential. Bartel, 39, launched his site last year after noticing dozens of books with titles like "101 Things to Do Before You Die."

"At first I pictured it as an adventure-tourism/extreme-sport thing," says Bartel, a stay-at-home dad in Green Bay, Wis. These days it attracts webheads facing "any transitional phase of life, from mid-20s to retirement age," he says, including computer-savvy 60-somethings doling out advice to younger listmakers. Upshot? More family and career goals, fewer K2 ascents.

I'm not a big list guy myself, never have been. Having been born somewhere between John McCain and Barack Obama, I've come around to giving it a shot, though.

So far I've been able to cross off: golfing with John Updike, seeing Egypt's Great Pyramids (with my wife, on horseback), owning a Maine farm, writing a newspaper column, and witnessing something truly majestic: each of my three children being born.

Ahead, in no particular order, are shooting a hole-in-one, sailing with Ted Kennedy, taking my family on an African safari, reducing my carbon footprint by half, and seeing my 5-month-old granddaughter graduate from college, debt-free.

OK, and losing 10 pounds.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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