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Friday, December 31, 2010

My New Year's Resolution

At this time of year, it is traditional to make resolutions, such as, say, losing x number of pounds in the coming year. This blog is about my New Year’s resolution.

I think I can safely write this without hurting anyone’s feelings, because my father-in-law never visits the internet.

My wife and I spent four days between Christmas and New Years straightening up my in-laws’ house. My father-in-law’s office took two and a half days by itself: a room so cluttered you could scarcely move around, a desktop invisible under a snowdrift of papers with more papers and random boxes of papers and supplies on every square inch of floor. My father-in-law has an old microwave that he doesn’t use – the one in the kitchen is better and cleaner – but he can by no argument be persuaded to part with the other one, chili-encrusted on the inside, not even plugged in, with about as much heating power as a large unlit candle. He has at least four different radios or boom boxes, some with broken doors for cassette tapes, some with busted CD players. On no account will he part with any of them. He has a DVD VCR combination player in the living room behind his chair. The VCR isn’t working, but he’s holding on to it in the eventuality that the DVD/VCR he's currently using breaks down .

I went through letters dating back to 2006 which my in-laws kept stacked in the living room – pernicious junk mail mostly, offers to renew subscriptions to the journals, magazines, and newsletters my father in-law subscribes to, but evidently never reads – many of these were in unopened letters in the same stack. We installed another bookcase so they can store the magazines they do hold onto. Why would anyone keep a copy of Newsweek for more than a week? I am now also privately convinced that National Geographic is an arm of the devil.

My wife and I had were going to shell out seventy-five dollars to have someone shred all the useless papers, but at the last minute, my father-in-law inveighed upon us not to do so, so these are not stacked in plastic tubs in a locked storage shed out back.
It needs to be understood that in no sense would my in-laws be considered “hoarders,” in the clinical sense of the term; they are still on this side of “normal,” although their refusal to part with things seems eccentric to the point of being unreasonable.

In the Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future who shows him shadows of things that yet may be. I felt in straightening my in-laws’ house, I had been visited by a relative of that same ghost. I have certain hoarding tendencies, which I believe as an American I am especially prone to. I have been taught not to waste, not to throw anything away I might later want. This modus vivendi might have worked pretty well in the 19th Century when people still darned socks to make them last, but here in the 21st there’s so much stuff! And more stuff coming at you all the time!

Not only is owning so much crap wasteful, it also enslaves us. Each possession makes a demand on us that we spent part of our lives using it, or if not using maintaining, or if not maintaining, at least storing. In Citizen Kane, there’s a great sequence as Kane walks through his mansion down a mirrored hallway: endless reflections of Kane, Kane, Kane: a perfect visual representation of the ultimate loneliness and purposelessness of a life defined by acquisition. After his death, his crap is boxed up or thrown in the fire. His mansion isn’t even a prison, it’s a mausoleum.

It is very hard to move to the aesthetic that less is more, conditioned as we are by centuries of struggle against scarcity to get more. And more. And more. I will admit to owning boatloads of crap I never use, holding on to things for the preposterous goal of simply holding on to them. For example, and I only admit this in the spirit of frank confession, I have multiple marked-up drafts of Endless Corvette and Paradise Dogs in big fat notebooks stored in the basement against the possibility – okay, now you’re really going to think I’m out of my mind – that some future scholar would want to study them for clues as to my process. Oh, give me a break! For clues to my overweening megalomania, maybe. But I’m damned if I’ll turned into John Foster Kane. Out they go.

My niece Morgan and her husband Luke have a rule to get rid of anything they haven’t used in a month. I can’t go that far. For example, this would require that I get rid of my waffle iron, and who could live without at least once in a while making waffles at home. My wife and I have possessions that we use exactly once a year – much of it associated with holidays such as St Patricks or Christmas, and I’m just going to have to hold on to it. I’m not talking about inflatable yard Santas or white wicker reindeer, but lights and ornaments. And we have a ginormous stock pot we use pretty much exclusively for boiling corned beef. But I believe I can get rid of anything I haven’t used in a year. I can do that much.

There are other models of what it means to be an American besides the endless pursuit of getting stuff. Ben Franklin advocated the simple life, as did Thoreau. I will heed their example and the warning of my in-laws’ example. If I don’t use it, I’ll give it away. If I can’t give it away, I’ll throw it out.

As we put away our Christmas decorations decorations this year, I began hauling stuff out of the basement to give away, throw away, or sell. I’ve only made a start, so far because frankly there’s decades worth of accumulated crap down there and it’s just too exhausting to think of disposing of it all in one fell swoop. Nevertheless, that’s my New Year’s resolution. I figure I can stand to lose about two hundred to three hundred pounds.

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