My Museum

On my most recent visit spring visit to Phoenix, Arizona to watch spring training baseball, I took a day off to visit the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) which had been recommended to me repeatedly by two of my best friends.

I am not a great museum visitor.  If it says to plan to stay for three hours, I’m pretty sure I will be done in one.  It’s one of the substantial differences between my wife and I when it comes to travel is that she will go through EVERY room, and read EVERY card for every part of the exhibits.  This is not a criticism.  She likes to soak in all of the details and moves through the museum at a most leisurely pace.

I sort of cruise through and skim a lot of what I see unless or until something really catches my attention, and then I’ll read up on it more thoroughly.  On this particular day, I found two rooms that were terrific.  One exhibit, called “Dragons and Vines” was dedicated to the art of how elements like pearl, abalone and other substances are inlaid into the fretboard and body of guitars.  The technology,craftsmanship, and flights of imagination were incredible.  The second room was dedicated to individual artists worldwide featuring pictures, videos, instruments, and outfits that they wore on stage.  I think I spent over an hour in these two rooms alone. I had to go back into both rooms twice, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything.

I spent about 10 minutes in the entire rest of the museum which featured a vast array of musical instruments from all over the world.  It was overwhelming, and I really didn’t care about the how or why the noisemakers of Sri Lanka were different that those from Serbia.  If I had read any of the info cards on the second floor, I would have forgotten anything I learned by the time I got back to my car.  It’s why I don’t spend the time reading up on all of the historical stuff.  I just don’t retain it. I leave museums with a few highlights in my mind and a general sense of if it met or exceeded my expectations going in.  In this case, the MIM absolutely did.  I loved the two rooms that I loved.  That was plenty for me.

Museums are like our archives of our civilizations, right?  Besides teaching us about who we are, we are trying to hold on to the good stuff so we don’t forget about it.

I’ve been thinking about that as my wife and I have been going through a continual purging process around the house.   It started when we had to move virtually everything out while we were having our floors re-done.  We have thrown away and given away boxes and bags full of clothing, books, furniture, kitchen supplies, you name it.  Going through the process made us look at everything, contemplate how long it had been since we used or even touched the item (we have lived in the same house for 36 years) and soon we had cleared whole shelves and emptied multiple storage boxes.

We’ve been trying to narrow the archive, our personal museum, down to the really important stuff–to the things that will bring us joy to look at and that will enrich the lives of whomever we decide to leave these things to in the future.

I keep thinking about what I wanted to leave behind to the people I love to remember me by.  Didn’t it make sense to start giving some of this stuff away now?  I’d rather give them a keepsake of some real or sentimental value now, while I can cogently say to them, “Here’s the story behind this object and why it’s so important to me, and I want you to have it because I know you’ll love and value it just as much as I have.”

Like, I have this wine opener, a simple but elegant design, that my dad gave to me when I was 21. We met up after work on the day I turned 21, and he took me out for my first official drink.  But as we were drinking in this divey little bar, he told me what he had REALLY wanted to do for me on my birthday.  He had planned to take me to a strip club when I turned 21.  Apparently, his father had done this with him on his 21st as kind of a rite of passage thing, to expose him to the “world of men” and show him it was no big thing.  He wanted to continue that little tradition with his son, but my mom quashed his plan, so we had to settle for a drink together.  I kind of wish he had thrown caution to the wind and that we had had that moment together doing something a little salacious, just me and him.  Even though we didn’t, I appreciated that his heart was in the right place.

The fact that I have managed to hold on to this token for over 40 years makes it valuable along with the memories it holds.  My daughter Emily, who enjoys an occasional glass of wine recently celebrated her 30th birthday.  I gave her the opener with a letter explaining its history and significance to me.  I knew that she would like the thought that the gift was from both me and her Grandpa Jack.

So, as I go through every box and crate, I take a hard look at what is still stuck in our own personal museum and think about the people I love and wonder if they might like this object or that book, dedicated especially to them.  It’s easy to accumulate a lot over nearly 40 years and sometimes so much harder to begin to let it go.

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Bookshelf

Completely bereft of an idea for today, I started to stare at the large bookshelf that hangs over my desk—the desk where I often sit thinking about how I don’t have anything to write about.

Mary and I have been getting rid of stuff that we have not touched in 10 or 20 years and that we have finally decided we should really let go. The urge to purge really came from two sources. One was that we had to empty bookshelves, closets, china cabinets and more because we were having all of the flooring in our house replaced and we had to protect as much stuff from breakage and dust as we could. We enriched the local thrift stores with a truckload of boxes and bags, but half of my garage is still taken up with boxes that we have not had the time or the will to tackle.

And then 5 years ago, my sister and I had to empty my mother’s mobile home out and put it up for sale when we realized she could no longer live on her own and had to move her into a board and care home. It took us the better part of a month to sort through the decades worth of crap that my parents had held on to. I hauled bag after bag of items that were once useful and meaningful to them off to the dumpster including at least 10 ashtrays (they had both stopped smoking over twenty years ago). It was weird. It was like throwing away someone else’s life without their permission. I decided that I would try not to do the same to my own kids.

So on my bookshelf I can see there are really three categories of books: books I will never read, books I have read many times but cannot yet bear to part with, and books I have purchased or have been given to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

The “never will read” category includes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, which should have gone to the thrift store, but I felt guilty because some people think it’s a modern classic and I always meant to read it. Same goes for Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I mean, really. When am I going to be in a good enough mood to want to read shit like that?

The “cannot bear to part with” section is probably the largest. There are the classics like my copies of Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, The Poisonwood Bible, and Fahrenheit 451, each filled with years of notes crammed into the margins from the time I spent teaching them. They each carry all of the memories of those years of my life, especially of the days when a discussion went well. And tucked away in a corner is a little gem of a book entitled If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock. It was his first book, and I’m pretty sure it’s out of print. It has romance, time travel, Mark Twain, and the history of baseball all put together in a story I fell in love with.

The “yet to read” section is filled with gifts from family and friends, most especially from my son, a fellow writer. High on my list is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity which I hope it is just as funny as the movie was, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I can’t figure out why I have not yet tackled Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed because his first two books were so terrific (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns).

So, I’m faced with the dilemma of what books to save, to toss, or to give away. It’s a tough one for a former English teacher. Each story seems to carry it’s author’s history and a little bit of my own.

 

 

Purging vs. Saving: A Dilemma

eyeball

 

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!