Tag Archives: American culture

Our Story of Stuff

I’ve been jogging more lately, which means I’ve caught glimpses of what my neighbors are up to—and not up to, such as cleaning out their garages. I’ve seen a number of garage doors with boxes packed to the ceiling, stuff spilling into the driveway. Catching someone opening his or her garage door is like witnessing a surgery; the surgeon cuts an opening, and the viscera that’s packed in there so tightly overflows past the barriers of skin.

That’s suburbia. More. More. And then more.

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Japanese minimalism hasn’t caught on here, or, if it has, those folks keep their garage doors closed. My husband often jokes I should earn money consulting as a de-clutterer. I don’t have any books to my name like Marie Kondo, only a decades-long track record of purging stuff. One of my college roommates called me “Spartan” because in our cramped apartment in London, I kept only a few items and didn’t paste my corner of the wall with mementos. Open our garage door and you’ll find about seven things that belong to us: my 1926 iron-cast clawfoot tub I hope to reglaze; our lawnmower, a fire pit; two bags of potting soil food; two vintage-style porch chairs. The rest of what’s in there: wooden planks (no idea why or for what); gardening tools; a very old dining room chair that doesn’t seem to match anything; and interior doors from our 1926 Colonial all belonged to the previous owner, an avid gardener who was from Japan, and who spent more time sprucing her yard than the house. Not knowing what to do with her stuff, we just left everything alone.

I’ve been doing some late spring/early summer cleaning, and while I was doing this, the same college friend who called me “Spartan” sent me a story about compulsive purging. I’ll own this, but only up to a point. I will admit that there’s a little brain chemical rush when the Salvation Army picks up old furniture, or when last weekend, some guy in a white pickup truck took the old barbecue smoker I left on the curb (because no one has 14 hours anymore to stand around and turn meat as it smokes). Purging gives me the same brain chemical rush as eating chocolate or jogging or yoga. Perhaps I was sparking my own joy before it became trendy. But I’m not a compulsive purger, and there are many reasons why.

Walk into my house and books are everywhere. On the coffee table. On the dining room table. On the desk. By the bedside. Sometimes on a chair. Sometimes left in bed. Sometimes serving as a coaster. These books aren’t organized in any particular way, just splayed out in either the order I was reading them or the order in which I brought them home from the library.

I also keep in plain sight a conch I found last year. It was lying in a pile of garbage and rotting conchs on a beach in the Bahamas. It’s absolutely beautiful, a swirl of pink grooves, and people have asked where I got it. When I say “in a pile of garbage,” they often look surprised, perhaps assuming I bought it at a tchotchke shop in Florida, because isn’t that where shells come from? I have a number of shells from my travels (though none from the Galapagos Islands because that’s illegal, and I won’t take anything from Hawaii, whenever I visit, because I’m told that brings bad luck). So I guess you could say I’m hoarding shells.

Also, I don’t buy something, purge it, and then go out and buy it again, which is what compulsive purgers do, with anything from lamps to toasters. Usually when I buy something, I hold on to it for a long time. I have two dresses I bought in 1993 at the Portobello Road Market that I can no longer fit into (no amount of diet and exercise is going to give you back the waistline you had at age 20). Donating them would make sense, but I never will. I also have a lovely antique-looking (don’t know the exact date) chamber pot Mike bought for me also at the Portobello Road Market when he was there in 2015. Do I keep a chamber pot next to my bed? No. Do I love having a chamber pot sit on my bookshelves next to a century-old Lithuanian typewriter? Yes. Will that chamber pot ever fall into the Purge Pile? Never.

I fall somewhere between wanting that Japanese aesthetic and wanting a Cuban aesthetic, and I recognize that sentence makes no sense, but let me explain. When I went to Japan in 2013, and walked into hotel rooms or restaurants where the only adornment was a single vase with a single flower, or sometimes just a vase or piece of pottery, nothing on the walls, no other distractions, I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Clutter gets on my nerves, space calms me, and Japan calmed me. And then I walked into paladars in Havana where the walls are sensory experiences, filled with color, dozens of paintings often by local artists because Cuba brims with art, fresh flowers, an old record player, and I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Color and eclectic stuff make me happy, and Cuba makes me happy.

The decor of our 1926 Colonial swings between these two. I’m not sure it works, but I’m being honest with you in case you visit.

We’re not shoppers. We don’t routinely go to malls or have boxes on our front step from Amazon. We are surrounded by folks who are Black Belts in online shopping. When I’m in Cuba, I think about the Story of Stuff, and wonder what Cubans would think of this, an island where there’s a shortage of just about everything, where I brought a suitcase full of art supplies and baseball gear. How do you explain that de-cluttering has become a middle class American battle cry? Whenever I come back from Cuba, I’m always in shock at the 10,000 brands of toothpaste on the shelves here or the hundreds of shades of nail polish. Do we really need this much?

Research suggests clutter reflects stress, anxiety, and depression, and adds to these feelings. I believe this to be true, though I have my own unique compartmentalization techniques my husband still quite doesn’t understand. I can’t stand the clutter of a pile of shoes (I like shoes kept in their original boxes so they don’t get dusty), but I don’t mind a sloppy stack of books. I can’t stand too many kitchen utensils or appliances cluttering up our small kitchen (really, how many spatulas and frying pans does one need?), but I’ve got a five-foot metal sunflower made in New Mexico that I lovingly dust. A pile of dirty clothes will fray my nerves but a pile of seashells from Mexico, Florida, Jamaica, is okay. It only makes sense to me.

My mother-in-law spent decades shopping herself into poverty, and when she passed away from leukemia in 2014, my husband and I geared up for the arduous task of going through her house and sorting through her stuff. She had countless unopened boxes from QVC, including multiple salad spinners and asparagus cookers (so that you could cook asparagus vertically instead of horizontally in a conventional saucepan). To call the experience sobering is an understatement, and perhaps afterward, my husband came to appreciate my quirky de-cluttering tendencies (or maybe not; you have to ask him).

The death of a loved one, the clearing out of a house, always makes us pause and think about what we really need, what should stay and what should go. Whenever we move out of our 1926 Colonial and away from these overstuffed garages and McMansions, I will feel a huge sense of relief but also, surprisingly, some sadness. We’ve lived in this house for seven years now, and I’ve grown very attached to writing on my enclosed front porch, where I write this blog post. I will miss this porch very much, one of the main reasons we bought the house. I will miss my other clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom (I will reglaze its twin someday), where I would soak after a day of skiing in the Catskills. I will miss the backyard Easter egg hunts that we no longer do because kids quickly outgrow such activities (we already donated the plastic eggs we used to fill with candy). I will miss roasting s’mores on the backyard fire pit. We will be eventually downsizing because my husband and I dislike lawn care and we only use two-thirds of our 1,430-square-foot house, which is modest compared with current American floor plans. We are not very good suburbanites. It’s time for a change.

Five years from now, which will happen in a blink, our only child leaves for college. I’ve kept five or six large plastic bins filled with stuff from her childhood: tiny handprints cast in clay; crayon drawings; some baby clothes; some baby toys—items that used to be randomly tossed about our apartment before we bought this old house because back then, they were everyday objects. I remember during those early years, feeling overwhelmed by baby clutter, the strollers, the swing, all the bulky plastic toys before she became old enough to play with small Legos and not swallow them (and then the tsunami of Legos overwhelmed me). Over the years, I set aside the items, many that my daughter made, that I could never say goodbye to (though she was such a prolific artist we did have to toss quite a bit of art). Now, these objects that were once taped to the refrigerator or gathered dust on a table are mementos and memories stored in bins, bins that will follow us no matter where go, no matter what the anti-stuff experts say.

Crossing Borders

During a morning walk in suburban Florida this week, I passed this pile of discarded plastic flamingos on a lawn that looked cared for but not really used, and I couldn’t help but think about the American dream as we approach the inauguration of the next president. America is going through some funky, disturbing times. There is a sense of mourning among many, and yet, also around the corner from my rented house here in Cape Coral, Florida, a Trump/Pence sign, so not everyone is mourning. Also on my walk, a young guy greeting me “good morning” while holding a rifle in each hand, manatee-shaped mailboxes, and upright pink plastic flamingos adorning lawns filled with plastic candy canes and inflatable polar bears.

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Honestly, as I hang out in Florida, I’m in shock that I’m still in the same country that is also home to Portland, Oregon, and to Chicago and to Shamrock, Texas (had a layover there back in 1998), and to New York City, my backyard for the last 13 years. The fact we’re still a union at all answering to the same red, white and blue flag stuns me, and we should consider this progress even though there’s so much vitriol and bipolarity and -isms right now. We are 50 *very* different states. I celebrated my first birthday in Texas; I grew up in upstate New York; I lived in Seattle, then moved to Washington, D.C. (not a state, I know). I got married in Vermont. I have driven the width of the Contiguous 48 three times. I have visited 30-plus of America’s diverse states—haven’t yet visited Alaska or Hawaii—and each state functions as their own little universe. I lived in New Hampshire for six months about 20 years ago. New Hampshire, despite a shared geography with Vermont, has a completely different mindset from the Green Mountain State; it’s like comparing New Mexico with Arizona, or North Carolina to South Carolina, two states that still cannot agree on the proper way to serve barbecue. Despite shared borders, these are not apple-to-apple comparisons by any stretch. Why is that? Why do things change so much when you cross borders drawn by dead white guys?

It’s easy to happily function inside your bubble, mingle among like-minded people, never go beyond your borders, but I like going to other people’s bubbles, even if we disagree on who should lead America or the Second Amendment or the nutritional value of almond milk. America is just that, a string of bubbles, and communities feel increasingly less inclined to Venn-diagram with one another. Someone looked surprised when I mentioned I wasn’t going to unfriend Trump voters. I even had brunch a few weeks ago with a staunch Republican, who is a dear friend of mine. Our bubbles overlapped over eggs and Bellinis.

I’ve been fascinated by regionalism and differences long before Trump shocked millions of us by winning the electoral vote. To answer my own query, I started reading Lewis and Clark’s journal entries earlier this year, trying to picture what America looked like before being claimed, parceled and mapped out, before Texas was briefly its own Republic, before Abraham Lincoln had to fight to keep the country from ripping itself apart, before Los Angeles turned into Tinsel Town, before Wal-Mart took over the landscape, before “coastal elitism” became a term. Lewis spends several—and I do mean several—pages lamenting about the morning fog slowing things down, perhaps not thinking that two centuries later, a 40-something suburban mom who hates America’s ubiquitous malls and themed parks would be scanning his words for clues. Entries are spelled out phonetically, so it’s not smooth, intuitive reading; his meditations about what America used to be require stepping away from the puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. And I’m still not sure on the answers, on when all these political, social and cultural tectonic shifts began, or where they’re going, and maybe these changes are harder to gauge because these movements are still moving.

Had America not been so goddamn big, had Sacagawea said to Lewis and Clark: “Find your own way! Jean Baptiste needs his nap!” or had Napoleon not needed to sell off “Louisiana,” which constitutes most of middle America, to fund his warmongering, what would America look like now? Who would be assuming power in four weeks? Where would the red and blue states be? Is there a singular American culture anymore or are there many American cultures? Those who drink their coffee with soy-free almond milk versus those who prefer whole milk from cows that grazed on pesticide-treated grass, and everyone else in between? Who is America today?

These “what if’s” are folly, as all “what if’s” are. Regionalisms will always prevail, no matter how much the Internet attempts to globalize us. As I write this, I am playing George Michael’s 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” a thoughtful, moody album about working out our differences, finding some common ground, and breaking free from the shoulds, coulds, and woulds. I keep replaying “Cowboys and Angels” a wispy, jazzy tune that feels like clouds floating by—perfect for a lazy day in Gulf Coast Florida. The day after tomorrow, I will be in a car with my husband and tween, driving about 800-plus miles back north, dreading the Northeast’s go-go-go attitude, its cold and darkness, missing clouds and sunshine and plastic flamingos and swimming pools surrounded by chintzy Christmas decor. All these things are closer than I realize, they appear not so far when I look at a map, yet when I am back in suburban New York City in just a few days, these things might as well be on the moon. We will cross seven states to return to New Jersey, a state that I thought would only be a pit stop, that after 13 years of keeping a residence there, still doesn’t feel like home. And as I pass through each state, I’ll be wondering who America is becoming, where are we going? And will we all get there together?