Covered Piles of Stuff: My Stuff & Stories May 31

fullsizeoutput_1fdbI could go on, but mercifully I will not. For the past month, during which I celebrated my seventy-fifth birthday, I’ve posted daily blog entries about stuff I’ve acquired through these seven-and-a-half decades. This Google satellite photo illustrates comedian George Carlin’s famous observation: “A house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

The cover on my pile of stuff is in the center of the photo. On the right is my former home, which allowed for a much larger pile of stuff. On the left is a rental home, where new folks are just now moving in with their pile of stuff.

The stuff I wrote about didn’t include essentials, such as stove, refrigerator, bed, couch. The stuff I featured had to have a story. My reasoning is that we don’t hang onto cherished stuff for practical reasons but for reasons of the heart.

I’m afraid I didn’t make that entirely clear, because a couple of readers suggested that I simply take photos of the stuff, give the stuff away, and enjoy the photos, which require less space. I already have way too many photos stashed away as it is. More important, to badly paraphrase an adage attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. A photo is not the same as touching, looking directly at, being surrounded by, and appreciating the mysterious ways atoms come together to create the stuff that we love. I relish the physical presence of my storied stuff in my space, even if it does create clutter.

As I sorted through the stuff, I discovered a few items to give away. Their stories had faded or weren’t so great to begin with. That does NOT mean I’ve created shelf space for more stuff. If you’d like to binge-read the entire series, you can find it on my website archive. I deeply appreciate all who have followed the series, and I’ve enjoyed your comments.

Digitally Doomed? My Stuff & Stories May 30

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A part of my digital inventory. I’m stuck between not wanting to go back and not wanting to go forward in the computer age.

I’m glad to belong to the generation that witnessed the dawn of the digital age and its impact on our day-to-day lives. Younger generations have no more clear picture of what life was like before computers than I can conceive of what it was like when horses were the primary mode of transportation.

I’d never want to go back to manual typewriters, pay phones, stopping at gas stations to ask for directions, and loading film into cameras. But I’m not much interested in going forward either. I have all the personal devices and apps I need. More in fact.

Not in the photo of my digital world is the Amazon Dot, “Alexa.” I bought it for my centenarian friend, Elizabeth, who could no longer see well enough to operate a CD player. I figured she could use voice commands to play music. Sadly, she died before I got it set up. I brought it home and use it as a timer or to stream music. I continually receive emails detailing all the wonderful things I could be doing with Alexa. My response is, “Who needs it?”

That was my response when tablets arrived on the scene. Then I attended a recital featuring a pianist who was reading his music on an iPad and turning pages with a foot pedal. Instantly I realized, “I need that!”

When Facebook arrived on the scene, I wondered “Who needs it?” Apparently 2.7 billion people.

Before moving into my smaller house I measured to make sure there’d be room for a small grand piano. I bought a high-end keyboard, thinking it would serve me temporarily until I found the right acoustic grand. That was five years ago. If a grand piano were to land in my lap (unfortunate metaphor—that would hurt!), I’d make room for it. But I still wouldn’t give up the keyboard and its varied sounds, rhythmic functions, recording ability. I need those.

Innovation continues to happen, and obsolescence is an essential part of digital marketing. Whatever you just bought is obsolete the day after the Amazon drone delivers it. A lot of people worry about the impact of Artificial Intelligence. That doesn’t worry me as much as human intelligence, or the lack thereof. Self-driving cars are predicted to take over the roads just around the time when I should give up driving. I’m sure I’ll need one of those.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

High School Yearbooks: My Stuff & Stories May 29

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From my senior yearbook: My last name isn’t the only thing that’s changed!

Raise your hand if you still have your high school yearbooks. I’ll bet most people hang onto them out of nostalgia, or for no better reason than to refresh their memories before attending class reunions. I was on the yearbook staff my senior year in high school, though I have not attended a reunion since the twentieth.

I graduated from a large school—more than four hundred in our class. The first two reunions were massive, noisy cocktail parties, with little opportunity for meaningful conversation. I’m still in touch with three of the surviving members from the Class of ’62, and I’ve promised I’ll attend the sixtieth reunion in three years—if I’m still alive and if there’s still enough organizational energy to put one together. The email invitation to the fifty-fifth reunion included a sobering list of classmates who’d reached their ultimate graduation.

When I leaf through the pages of that 1962 yearbook, I’m more absorbed by the photos of teachers than of my fellow students. The first reunion I attended—the tenth—I was disappointed that no teachers were there. Had they even been invited? I finally realized that teachers surely have better things to do than attend class reunions, year after year. 

Those teachers’ faces in the yearbook remind me of the lasting impact they’ve had on my life. I’m sad that I never let them know that. They’re most certainly gone by  now. I remember running into one teacher, Robert Thornburg, when I was in my thirties. He’d been my eighth grade English teacher, and I’ve never forgotten a comment he made on a theme I wrote. My opening sentence was, “Music is the universal language.” His response in the paper’s margin was, “Says who?” An appropriate challenge for someone headed toward a journalism career.

He seemed to enjoy challenging me, as if he thought I could become something special if I’d try. And I wasn’t the only one. Mr. Thornburg moved from junior high to teach at our high school and, among other things, was yearbook advisor. That’s why I wanted to be on the staff. When I bumped into him (metaphorically) all those years later, I happily told him I was an editor for the Associated Press. He smiled and nodded.

Why didn’t I say, “Your classes and your faith in me have been instrumental to my career” … or why didn’t I simply say, “thank you”? I sure wish I had.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

Edna Mae: My Stuff & Stories May 28

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Edna Mae as a young woman

My mother-in-law, Edna Mae, died owning little more than the clothes on her back. That’s exactly how she wanted it. The morning after her death, I cleaned out the drawers and closet in her room at the nursing home. After donating her clothing, I walked out with only a small box of personal items and memorabilia. I remember feeling sad and thinking, “There should be more.”

As she’d aged, she carried the concept of down-sizing to an extreme. The few things that mattered to her were passed on to younger generations. She kept only the necessities for day-to-day life. A veteran of the Great Depression, she needed and wanted very little. Even Christmas gifts were routinely returned to the giver.

Frugality was her religion. Toward the end of her life, she lived with us for a while. One evening I was clearing the table after dinner. We’d had a casserole that had been left-over from left-overs. There was still a tiny bit in the dish—not enough to choke a sparrow. She saw me scrape that bit of food into the garbage and declared sternly, “That’s wicked!”

At one point we learned she’d burned the daily diaries she’d been keeping for years. I suspect it was less about clearing clutter and more about keeping her private life private. The diaries from her later years made it safely into her granddaughter’s care. Then they too were burned when Katie lost her home in the Carlton Complex Fire. It was as if the Universe were adhering to Edna Mae’s wishes.

All family photos are precious. This one of Edna Mae is especially dear to me. It was taken, I believe, for high school graduation. In her eyes, I see a glint of the “gotcha” genes her son inherited. She walked to the beat of her own drum, raised her kids well, and loved her husband above all else.

Her final years were miserable. She was in pain both physically and emotionally. Her husband and one son had died. Her other son was in a wheelchair and unable to speak with her. Dementia had erased her spirited, adventuresome self. The photo reveals who she was, how she loved life, and how life loved her back.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

The Letters: My Stuff & Stories May 27

fullsizeoutput_1fc9I’d intended to burn them when I moved and down-sized. Three boxes of letters, two large ones containing John’s letters to me, and one small box of my letters to him. He could always out-write me. He’d sit at the typewriter, later computer, and punch those keys with the passionate fury of Horowitz playing Chopin.

As I prepared to burn our pre-marital love letters from more than forty years ago, I made the mistake of opening and reading one. And then another. I could read no further, but I quickly realized there’d be no incinerating John’s letters—although they were hot enough to ignite a flame on their own. He wrote three or four pages every day, the words flowing, the sentiment naked and honest. I wrote maybe a page or two a week, reserved, cautious.

I was working in Seattle, weary of my job as an AP editor. I lived on Vashon Island, a beautiful place I swore I’d never leave. He was, of course, in Omak, where I claimed I could never live. Besides passion, there was a lot of negotiation in those letters. We wrote our way toward the epic decision of marriage and my relocation.

The letters have been stored in the far corner of a high shelf, where I wouldn’t see them but be assured of their presence. Today, Memorial Day, I didn’t go to the cemetery, with all the flags, flowers, and people. As the poet Mary Elizabeth Frye observed, John is “not there.” Instead, I dragged out the stepladder and retrieved the boxes of letters. That’s where I find John. His presence in those letters is so real, I cannot read more than one or two. It’s a paradox. His presence in the letters makes his absence more vivid.

The letters still need to be sorted, possibly burned. Another project for “Someday.”

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

Someday: My Stuff & Stories May 26

fullsizeoutput_1fc8These are my “someday” projects. When you turn seventy-five, you begin to realize that your opportunities to find that “someday” are steadily diminishing. This odd assortment of notebooks, journals, and scrapbooks are the private musings of four people: my father, mother, husband, and me.

Especially precious is the “Scrap Book” (lower left), compiled by my dad for my mom during the years they were courting. It has various clippings and a number of Dad’s own poems. I never knew he wrote poetry as a young man until I found the “Scrap Book” while emptying my mother’s apartment after her death. We kids knew our parents loved each other deeply. At the end of every meal, Dad routinely rose from his chair, walked to Mother’s end of the table, and gave her a thank-you kiss. Still, I was surprised and moved when I read the tender poems he wrote for her before they married.

Mother’s journals make up the two stacks in the upper right. Some date from before their marriage. Her diaries were sporadic as she raised three kids, but later in life she was a faithful journalist. When she died I packed them all up and put them on a back shelf. I needed time before reading them, before invading her privacy. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of her death; I think I’m about ready to start reading.

The spiral-bound notebooks on the lower right are my late husband’s, just a few from the large stack that I put in storage. John began what he called a “phone message log” on Jan. 18, 1984. Those were the days before texting and email. He was on the phone constantly, scribbling notes with each call. His note-taking expanded into recording each conversation in the office, business activities, meetings, private conferences, and personal concerns. These jottings leave me breathless from the scope and variety of his daily activities. Most poignant are his final entries in late November, 1993. “Don’t feel well,” he notes, just days before the stroke that would paralyze him and end his note-taking.

In the top left are some of my own journals. “Someday,” with the help of John’s notebooks and my journals, I may finally finish the memoir I’ve been struggling with for more than a decade. “Someday” I’d like to write a biography of my parents, based on Dad’s “Scrap Book” and Mother’s journals. I’m telling myself, “Someday” had better come soon.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

It’s All Temporary: My Stuff & Stories May 25

fullsizeoutput_1fc6.jpegIf Okanogan County were to elect an official county bird, I would vote for the quail. I understand this quirky little bird is not native to the county, but then neither am I. With its bouncy topknot, woo-hoo call, and clumsy strut the beloved quail is frequently found in the work of local artists. Some of my favorite quail representations are in the pottery of the late Everett Lynch (1898-1988).

A retired U.S. Forest Service district ranger, Everett and his wife Dorothy, a weaver, were giants in the local arts and crafts scene. I felt privileged to interview them not long after I moved here. I always feel privileged to interview artists of note, and I was already familiar with Everett’s work. One of our wedding gifts was a covered dish created by him, inscribed “for John + Mary.” (top shelf of photo) Since then I’ve acquired quite a bit of Lynch pottery thanks to the sharp eye of my antiquer friend, Harley, who occasionally finds his work at (gasp) yard sales.

I believe Everett made his pottery not only to be admired but to be used. That, of course, comes with the risk of breakage and chipping. I’m willing to take the risk in exchange for the simple joy of holding and using art in every day life. Yet when I broke the beautiful brown bowl with quail design (top shelf, right), I was appalled. It had been one of my favorites. It was a clean break, though, right down the center. I glued the two pieces together and continue to use the bowl for late night popcorn.

That’s the point of collecting and keeping stuff. It’s a show of appreciation and, at the same time, an acknowledgement that all things material are in some sense fragile, temporary, or in a temporary form. All our stuff will eventually break, shatter, erode, melt, fade, rot, or evolve into something else. As do we.

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Pottery by the late Everett Lynch

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

Lighting My Fire: My Stuff & Stories May 24

fullsizeoutput_1fc5Last night, on the eve of a rainy Memorial Day weekend, I indulged myself with a seventy-five-year-old’s version of a campfire. Certainly there are more attractive chimineas than this battered, rusted Coleman so-called fire pit, but the brand name alone makes me nostalgic.

I think of the Coleman kerosene lantern and Coleman two-burner gas stove that my husband and I hauled around on numerous camping trips. We even had one of those impossibly heavy Coleman canoes. I never did master the stove. That was probably a ruse on my part because it made John responsible for all the cooking. Consequently, he was a happy camper.

The lantern and stove are long gone, along with the tent, backpacks, and other paraphernalia, but I still have both our goose down sleeping bags. They, of course, can be zipped together. I can’t remember the last time I slept in a sleeping bag, yet I refuse to give them up. Seems to me, in this age fraught with uncertainties, every home should have sleeping bags, just as every home should have a first aid kit, a supply of bottled water, batteries, emergency food, etc., etc.

Forty years ago this weekend, John and I went on our first camping trip as newlyweds. We met up with another couple at Salmon Meadows, a U.S. Forest Service campground, elevation about 4,500 feet. I remember standing around the campfire watching snowflakes melt in our steaming coffee mugs.

I’ve known people who continue to backpack and camp well into their eighties. I’m happy to limit myself to day hikes so I can sleep in a bed at night. The Coleman fire pit, which can double as a barbecue, was given to me some fifteen-or-so years ago by one of John’s healthcare aides. Her family had outgrown it. Much as I enjoy it, I rarely use it. Just on these cool spring evenings before the inevitable burn bans of summer, when the smell of smoke is no longer pleasurable and the air becomes acrid from wildfires.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

Tawny: My Stuff & Stories May 23

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Tawny just back from one of his escapes, exhausted, elated

Many’s the time I’ve thought about giving him away. Maybe a notice on Facebook: “Free to good home. Four-year-old neutered male, 44 pounds, shots current, housebroken. Loves people and other dogs. Breed uncertain. Only a little neurotic.”

He arrived at my home, a pup in the arms of a friend who’d found him abandoned.

“I already have two dogs!” she pleaded. I had one dog, Daphne, a mixed-breed black lab, dear to my heart. She was seven at the time, and I thought that was a good age to bring on another dog—old enough to teach the younger dog manners and young enough so the two could run and play together. Turns out, she barely tolerates him.

This pup had all the features neither one of us wanted in a dog. He’s male. That leg-up thing alone is a non-starter. I spent an entire career putting up with obnoxious males who assumed they had the proverbial leg-up on me and other women.

But we’re talking about a dog. He sheds copiously, his light fur floating through the house, mixing with Daphne’s black, mandating daily vacuuming. I named him Tawny in accord with his color. I should have named him Coyote in accord with his personality. He has all the characteristics of the mythical native coyote trickster, including a “gotcha” grin.

He never fails to take advantage if a door or gate is accidentally left open. Off he goes on a wild chase around the neighborhood, ignoring my commands and/or pleas to “Come!” If I try to catch him, he dances off, thrilled to be playing this game. After fifteen or twenty minutes of running and sniffing, he returns home, panting, deliriously happy.

His worst trait: he digs. Yesterday afternoon I saw him digging where I’d just planted flowers. I don’t hit dogs, especially not Tawny. A strong vocal command alone terrifies him. (I suspect he was abused as a pup by the human who ultimately dumped him.) I rarely am lucky enough to catch him in the act, so I burst out of the house yelling, “NO! STOP DIGGING! BAD, BAD, DOG!” He immediately ran to a far corner of the yard, where he cowered for hours.

Eventually we get over these escapades. He rests his chin on my knee and looks at me with eyes that spell love. He’s not the dog I wanted, but he’s the dog I have. Or does he have me?

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. Tawny’s not “stuff,” but I sure can’t let go of him. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)

The Etude: My Stuff & Stories, May 22

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On the left, an Etude from May 1939, and on the right, the May 1952 cover featuring composer Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), looking not nearly as pleased as the young ukulele player

When I was a fledgling piano student, the most exciting event of each month was the arrival of “Etude” music magazine in the mail. My piano teacher, like most, taught according to a “method,” a series of music books that guided students from a basic beginning to gradually more complex music. Didn’t matter what a student’s individual interests or abilities were, the “method” was followed religiously, page by page. No chance of moving on to triplets until AFTER you’d mastered eighth notes.

That’s why the “Etude” was so delicious. Tucked into its pages between essays about great composers and advice columns for music teachers, was actual sheet music, including music for young players like me. The pieces were graded, so I knew I could just sight-read Grade 1 music and maybe be challenged a bit by Grade 2. I was thrilled when I mastered a Grade 3 composition. I would spend just enough time practicing my assigned “method” pages to assure my teacher that I was progressing. Then I’d play from the “Etudes” for my own pleasure. My mother didn’t know that I wasn’t practicing, but playing. It was all music to her.

I have collected “Etudes” over the years, partly out of nostalgia, but mostly because I still prefer playing over practicing. I have nearly two hundred of the more than eight hundred “Etudes” published by Theodore Presser Co. between the years of 1883 and 1957. The oldest magazine in my collection is from July 1907; the newest, December 1954. Each month I pull out the magazines that were published in that particular month and play some of the music, everything from classics to contemporary composers of the day. I’m proud to announce that I can pretty much sight-read my way through grades 4 and occasionally 5. Many of the “modern” compositions are extraordinarily corny, occasionally with politically incorrect titles referencing various ethnic groups. Much of the music, however, has withstood the test of time. So have many of the essays and advice columns.

There isn’t much of a market for “Etude” magazines. My antique dealer friend, Harley, has been trying to sell duplicates from my collection with no takers. On-line I’ve seen offers ranging from $1.50 per magazine (that’s what it cost for an annual subscription in 1907) to one being offered on etsy.com for $104.96 with free shipping. I wish that purveyor well, but I suspect they’d be better off playing instead of selling.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider the stories attached to the stuff you treasure—maybe even share them.)