Purging vs. Saving: A Dilemma



When my children come to visit, I now will frequently present each of them with a “present”—one or more plastic boxes, full of their belongings, which they have decided to store in my garage even though neither of them has spent any serious time living at home for the past seven years.

Clothing, horse show ribbons, plastic horse collections, notebooks from both college and high school, and most especially, college textbooks which I know they will never, EVER open again, populate every free space that I can create. I have made a simple (and I think quite generous) rule regarding retention. If they really want to save it, I’ll keep storing it. But they have to look at everything and make a conscious decision that the object still has value.

My dedication to purging was inspired by the painful experience of having to empty my mother’s home when, two years after my father’s death, she was injured and precipitously consumed by a dementia that had been creeping into her life. Her condition required that my sister and I place her in a board and care home where her living space was reduced to an 11 x 11 single room from the spacious mobile home that she and my dad had enjoyed for over 30 years.

The “purge” was a combination of an exciting exploration of memorable objects and a tedious and painful exercise in laboriously making decision after decision regarding what was worth keeping. Pictures, jewelry, and silver, antique dinnerware—those were easy decisions to make. Kitchenware made its way to the kids and family members who had a use for it, but most of their furniture was dated and quickly donated. My sister and I created a system for tossing stuff. “You want this?” one of us would ask. If the answer was “no,” it was trash. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they did keep at least 10 ashtrays stored away even though they had both given up smoking over 25 years before. We must have easily filled a dumpster with the life they had formerly lived.

And my mother saved paper. Virtually every document that was related to taxes, investments, bank accounts, insurance, health care—anything that looked vaguely official—was squirreled away into a semi-roll-top desk that someone else is now enjoying because I couldn’t fit it in to my house.

I spent hour after hour looking through every one of these documents to determine what actually needed to be saved. I ended up with four hefty boxes of documents that I deemed to be unimportant and took them to a professional shredding company (who knew such places existed?) but also found my father’s service records from World War II, my parents’ marriage license, birth certificates, and other family records that even I couldn’t bear to part with. These were the tangible evidence of some of the most important aspects of the lives of my parents, and I found myself struggling to let them go. I even kept my grandmother’s Social Security card. Now, when will I need that?

And that’s the crux of it—Irrational Emotional Attachment. IEA.   It’s probably a certified psychological syndrome. If it isn’t, it should be. It causes us to keep around mounds of stuff that no one will ever want, that we will never look at or use. Even someone like me, who likes to get rid of stuff, falls victim to IEA.

I had the good fortune of being chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year in 2009. As a result, I made a number of appearances where I received numerous acrylic “awards” which I displayed for about a year and then boxed up. I never look at them, but can’t throw them away. Someday, one of my kids will. The one exception may be the most nominally significant one—an award recognizing me as one of 12 semi-finalists for California teacher of the year. It is a hideous acrylic creation that we dubbed the “menacing eyeball”. As I packed it away, I remarked dryly to my daughter, Emily that “you guys will be fighting over this someday.” For all I know, it will go the way of my parents’ ashtrays.

So, in the spirit of purging, I took on “the box.” For years, I have wrapped up and saved what I thought was a box that only contained the correspondence between my wife of 40 years and myself when we were interested/dating between the years of 1970 and 1974. Two weeks ago, I broke open two layers of plastic and dove into this archive. In addition to our correspondence, I found letters and cards from former students (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), letters from my high school classmates (one of whom had suffered an untimely death), my own high school memorabilia, and letters from former girlfriends and from Mary’s (my wife) friends, some of whom I dated while I was waiting around for her to notice me.

Some cards and letters were easy to discard, their authors being long forgotten, but others were much harder, a clear case of IEA. They told stories of connections with students who I had managed to support during traumatic times, cards from parents who had appreciated my efforts, one former student who I had helped out as a teen just to become her children’s teacher during the last year of my career. Throw them away? Logically, yes, I should. But no, they went into the “save” pile.

These earnest letters from parents and students make up more of my legacy from teaching than any award I might have received.   They make up a nearly 40-year history of working in a profession that I loved. When I look back at them, I like to think that they are representative of me being my best self. They remind me that teaching was so much more than a lesson well planned or another set of papers graded.

I will still open these cards and letters from time to time and enjoy those memories. I promise, I will throw one or more away every time and whittle away at the number that must some day face the shredder.

Next up! What I discovered in the mounds of letters that Mary and I exchanged during our long-distance romance. Ah, young love—It’s a beautiful thing!

Cool People Need Not Apply



Yes, by posting my ninth-grade yearbook picture, a pic I usually keep under lock and key, I’m taking one for the team—the team of all of you who hate any pictures of yourself from high school. This is not a look I would wish on anyone, especially a young high-schooler hoping for some degree of acceptance and popularity.

I did not enter high school thinking of myself as a nerd, but I certainly had all the essential elements of what I now consider to be an outdated definition of nerd-ity. There was no tape on my glasses, and even I knew better than to use a pocket protector (after all, that’s why I kept a pencil box handy), but my social awkwardness, painful lack of self-assurance, and absence of athletic ability led me to focus on the only thing I was good at—academics. Clearly, in the strict stratification of high school society, I had “nerd” written all over me (see picture above).

I attended Saint Augustine High School, an all-boys Catholic school in San Diego, and sitting in freshman orientation, I felt incredibly alone because there were boys from all over the county, but very few from my small parochial school. I immediately latched on to the first person who was nice to me, Ralph, a friend I kept for exactly as long as it took me to make several new friends and to realize that (if possible) Ralph was actually even less cool than I was (Sorry Ralph, I still feel bad about that one).

I eventually escaped high school with some sense that I had outgrown the “nerd” label. By the end, I had a solid and varied friend group, was near the top of the class, had become co-editor of the school newspaper, and become active in drama (OK, I know, that one is a toss-up).

Also, one of the men I worked with at the grocery store where I had a part-time job took an interest in me and helped me improve my wardrobe (no small task during the early 70’s), feel more confident around women, and introduce me to the world of hair stylists which helped me to get beyond the slicked-down Vitalis look that I had cultivated as a ninth-grader. Best of all was a conversion to contact lenses my junior year, and my purchase of a 1968 metallic blue Mustang during my senior year, a car that remains the coolest vehicle I have ever owned.

While none of these improvements gained me entrance to the “cool kids club” on campus, I did leave high school with good memories, some very good friends, and a sense of confidence about the future.

Years later, as I began teaching, I felt a special kinship to kids who felt isolated or awkward and it was clear that the term “nerd” still carried a heavy stigma. But, something happened as the years went by. Just as in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya has to chide the evil Vizzini over his repeated use of the word “Inconceivable!”, respectfully pointing out, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” the word “nerd” began to have a much more positive connotation.

This elevation of word in our language has precedent. In the 1300’s the word “nice” used to mean “simple,” or “ignorant.” To be “fond” meant to be “foolish.” Likewise words can decline and develop a more negative sense. Today’s “villain” (a la Voldemort, Moriarity, or Dick Cheney) simply meant “servant” long ago.

I’m not sure when the tide began to change, although it seems to me that it had something to do with, of all things, Harry Potter. There may have been precursors, of course, but this book series created such a cult among all ages that it unleashed midnight book releases, midnight movie showings, kids and adults showing up to both dressed in full costume—a total identification with the characters, the setting, and the story. There was something about the immersion in a pop culture phenomenon that allowed kids (and adults) to proclaim themselves as “Harry Potter nerds” with a sense of pride, not a sense of shame.

Toward the end of my career in the classroom, increasingly kids began to self-identify as “nerds,” sometimes with a grimace and a shrug, but more often with a laugh, often surrounded by a gaggle of other fellow nerds—happy, well-adjusted, athletic, and popular. After all, who wouldn’t want to be around people who are passionate, knowledgeable, and involved in either singular or multiple pursuits?

The title now seems much more associated with people who have a passionate dedication to something. While often, these passions are directed at icons of pop culture (i.e. Game of Thrones, Marvel Comic films, Star Trek, musicians) it also bleeds into much more mainstream pursuits. I mean, have you ever gotten stuck with someone who is desperate to explain to you just how well his/her fantasy football team is doing?

As a young person, being cool must be exhausting. There seems to be a slavish adherence to both a dress and behavioral code. One has to pretend to be friends with all the clan members while quietly forming strategic alliances and living with the notion that with just one slip, you can be voted off the island, cut off as someone who “used to be cool.”

I had to watch Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, Almost Famous, at least 8 times before I started to notice how important it was for everyone to be considered cool. They were all trying so hard, and even the members of the fictitious band, Stillwater, were plagued by insecurity about how they were perceived, begging William (Patrick Fugit) the teenaged rock critic, “Just make us look cool, man.” Later William’s mentor, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) wisely counsels him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

It strikes me that being cool is just too much work. Give me nerd-dom any day. All one has to do is go out and buy a new action figure for her collection, stay at home on a nice day and watch “The Hunger Games” for the tenth time, don’t let a single summer go by without re-reading the Harry Potter books—all of them. Yes, it’s just fine to spend three valuable hours working out trades for your fantasy football team. Just please don’t bother me during the baseball season from 7AM to 8 AM while I’m having my coffee and carefully reading and analyzing the box scores from the night before. It’s important work. Someone has to do it.