My office door, with post-its
I don’t deal all that well with stress, so it is unfortunate that I am the kind of person who creates a great deal of stress for myself. What with too much worrying, too much clutter, too many things I feel I should do when any reasonable person can see that not even one of the things I want to do is possible, I am really not the best person for someone like me to live with. The way Ivan lives with me is to suggest that I abandon the more grandiose of my many plans. When I think up exhausting dinner menus that will overwhelm me with stress, Ivan says, “How about if instead of your making two kinds of soup, three kinds of bread, herb butter, a couple of desserts, a main dish, three side dishes, and a salad, I’ll just grill some tuna and bratwurst and vegetables and you can set the table.” Even this is really too much for me, because there are still all the papers to throw away. I have to read everything before I can throw it away, and there is a lot of junk in those piles that I can’t see ever wanting to read.
Ivan is no help with the piles of junk because he wants to keep them himself. When I was at Cris and Stephanie’s, Stephanie would say, “Cris, I am throwing away these two used envelopes.” Cris would let her, but it was understood that nothing was to be thrown away without prior notification. Cris is a little like Ivan, except that I am allowed to throw away used or even new envelopes at will. Everything else is sacred, including duplicate Lego catalogues, photos of people we don’t know, and the brand-new “Wonder Woman” Barbie that Ivan bought on the grounds that no one could resist a Barbie based on a character whose favorite expletive was “Suffering Sappho!” It seems to me that, if I myself not only can but do resist her, then that shoots that theory into the ground; but it is too late; Ivan has her and says he definitely needs her.
Just as a point of interest, Wonder Woman Barbie comes with her own personalized lunch box. She will not lose it as she leaps about in pursuit of crime because it comes with a plastic handcuff. Presumably the handcuff goes around her waist, since her wrists are like toothpicks. About the only good thing I can say about Wonder Woman Barbie is that the woman can eat. That lunch box is the size of a doll suitcase. Also, it is her only accessory, so we know it is important.
At one point during my visit, Cris pulled two beer bottle caps out of her pocket. “Look,” she said, “I am going to keep these bottle caps because they are a brand similar to one I used to drink when I was younger.” “No, you are not going to keep those,” Stephanie told her. “But they’re kind of nice. Plus also they remind me of my youth,” said Cris. “Is that what is going on here, they’re an icon of your youth? That is usually why Ivan wants to keep things,” I remarked. “No,” said Stephanie, “that is not why she wants to keep them. The only reason that she wants to keep them is that she found them in her pocket.” It is not a very good reason, but I must say that they were good-looking bottle caps; I could have seen keeping them. Bottle caps, however, are not my downfall. My downfall is sheaves and scraps of paper that have writing on them and therefore may have answers to things I need to know.
Until a month ago, I carried a tattered scrap of newspaper around advising me to get rid of clutter.
The trouble with keeping all these valuable documents is that their precise value is not always evident at a distance of, say, a year or two. I was going through papers to see what I could throw out, and while it was clear that I could throw a lot of them out, it was far from clear why I had kept them in the first place. One stack of papers included a bibliography with titles like “Some Observations on the Digestibility of Food by Sheep, and on Related Problems.” Nothing against sheep, but this is not the sort of topic that philosophers of education have spent much time on. Even our harshest critics have not complained about this. I wonder who sent me this bibliography, but probably the better question is why I kept it.
It is possible that it is just a mistake. Some of my photos are mistakes. I was trying to take Cris’s picture at the dog park when a stranger walked into the frame and glared at me. I kept the picture. It is actually a pretty good picture, though not very memorable of Cris, of whom one can see everything but her face.
Luckily, I was able to get a good one of Cris later.
Cris with Fey
And one of Fey, airborne.
Ivan and I do not count digital photo files as clutter, no matter how worthless the pictures are. Here is a picture Joe sent us of his dinner on August 14, 2003.
Ivan is getting into the spirit of decluttering, but it is much easier for him to throw away the owner’s manual for the brand-new gas grill than it is to give away his Vertebrate Paleontology textbook. It was too bad about the manual. After a fortnight, the grill stopped working and there was no owner’s manual to consult, whereas the vertebrate mammals have not ceased their normal, if erratic and haphazard functioning. Actually, there have been occasional mammal meltdowns during which various enemies are alluded to in vague and ominous tones as being the usual suspects responsible for Ruining Everything, and dire predictions made as to the possibility that anything the mammal touched would immediately fall apart. But it is not clear that Vertebrate Paleontology would have contained any answers to this problem.
I did not think I needed this photo and up till five minutes ago
I did not have this photo, but Ivan says I definitely need it
I had thought that I’d persuaded Ivan to go a little lighter on book acquisition, but so far this has not happened. Most days, he still gets several new boxes of books in the mail. When Frank and Donna were out of town meeting Will for the first time, Ivan and I took care of Ponty and brought in the mail. Frank was receiving one or two boxes of books a day and one day he got two boxes while Ivan got none. Ivan couldn’t help thinking that that box probably was for him and had just been misdelivered. This past weekend, Frank and Donna and I were all in Champaign-Urbana, and they stayed an extra day, so when Ivan picked me up at the airport, we went to straight to their house to spend some time with Ponty. Ponty does not care for food-only service. When you visit Ponty, unless he is in the middle of a squirrel hunt, you are supposed to stay and help him survey his domain from the porch. While we were visiting Ponty, Ivan brought in the mail — Peruvian Connection for Donna and Indiana University Press for Frank.
“You got a box from Indiana University Press today, too,” said Ivan. “I am almost certain that Frank must have gotten the same thing.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “It’s probably the new issue of Hypatia.”
“No, it isn’t Hypatia,” said Ivan. At the time I didn’t think anything of this, as it is not unusual around here for people to speak in terms of enormous certainty about things they know nothing whatsoever about. It isn’t all that unusual in Frank and Donna’s house, either, or my parents’, or my siblings’, or Cris and Stephanie’s. A couple days ago, Stephanie made the kind of proclamation about something that in my family passes for authoritative knowledge, adding, “I read that in a scientific article.” There was a pause. “Which I read in an in-flight magazine,” she elaborated. Around here, it is enough to say that “scientists have proved” whatever you are claiming. You don’t have to say that you read it somewhere. It is enough just to know.
So I didn’t ask Ivan how he knew. I assumed he didn’t know. He pestered me. “About this box. Do you think I could open it?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Besides, what do you care about Indiana University Press? They don’t carry anything you would want.”
“I know, but I wanted to find out if it was the same book,” said Ivan.
“Let’s just say it is, then,” I told him. We visited with Ponty, I wrote Frank and Donna a humorous note about Ivan’s illegal though unacted-upon desire to open other people’s packages, and then we went home. My mail was stacked on my chair. It consisted of zero letters, this week’s issue of The Nation, and a book from Indiana University Press on pragmatism and race. There was no box around the book. “Did you open my box?” I demanded.
“Of course,” said Ivan.
“What do you mean, ’of course,’” I said. “You have never opened my boxes before.”
“I didn’t get a box and you did; you weren’t here so I opened yours,” said Ivan simply.
This was a curious coincidence, I thought, for I had just been hearing from Stephanie and Cris about their niece, whom they call Radio China because she gets the word out about anything that is going on around town. Depending on which report you believe, she is nine, ten, or eleven, and she knows the entire business of China, Maine, because she rides around on her bike peering into all the windows and scoping out the front porches to see if anyone got a package. Eventually, no doubt, she will become an anthropologist so as to legitimize the snooping. One time she went so far as to open someone’s package. When I heard this, I thought perhaps she went up on the porch and tore open the package, but the story we are given is that it was delivered to her house by mistake. It may very well be true that it was delivered to her house, but I doubt that it was by mistake. I don’t think that mistakes are made in China, Maine. I think that someone at the P.O. wanted to know what was in that box, so they took it where they could be sure a trustworthy informant would open it and get the word out. They could have sent it to our house, of course, and Ivan would have taken care of everything, but it is quicker and less suspicious to send it to someone right there in China, Maine.
Some of these days, Ivan and I are going to China, Maine. We are going to meet Radio China and maybe some baby raccoons. Also, Ivan needs to go to the hardware and grain store there. He says that he is not going on any walks. In that case, says Cris, there is no point in coming, because there is nothing else to do there. We know that that is not the case, however, because according to our information, Cris and Stephanie themselves never go on any walks there. They drive to the hardware store or they visit sick animals and relatives or they go to parties and pretend to drink beer, but mostly they stay home, ripping out parts of their house while having lively exchanges with the flying squirrels who live behind the drywall. Sometimes they go visit the deer who live next door, but mostly they are too busy ripping up the house.
We have a lot of demolition around here, too, but on a smaller scale.
After one extended exercise in house demolition and construction, I told Cris soothingly, “At least you are not replacing the foundation.” This turned out to be the wrong thing to say. “We don’t have a foundation,” said Cris gloomily. “The guy who built the house didn’t think it was necessary.” Cris is a magnet for people who do not think things that come standard are necessarily necessary. In 1986, when she bought her first new truck, the salesman asked her whether she would like to have a rear bumper with that. “Yeah, pretty much, since you need to have one to get a truck registered, yup, I’d like one,” said Cris. “Well, it’s extra, you know,” said the salesman.
When confronted with this same dilemma, a guy Ivan used to know decided not to buy the bumper. Instead, he built a wooden bumper out of 2x10s, routed, decorated, and stained. I don’t know why Cris didn’t think of this.
Living in our own perpetual, though more superficial, demolition and construction zone, Ivan and I are always interested in other people’s versions. Kathy Hytten sent me this picture she took at her parents’ house. Note the Memory Game and the Clearing the Clutter book. Sometimes the solution is part of the problem.
If Ivan and I went to China, Maine, we would go in part to see the work Cris and Stephanie are doing on the house, and in part to sit around and talk and read. In other words, we would do pretty much what we do around here, which means that Ivan is not going on any walks. When Ivan and I went to Florida to see Mom and Dad, there was no question of his going for a swim, because he does not go for swims at home. He sat by the swimming pool, but he wore long underwear because if he had been at home, he would have been wearing long underwear.
When the Buendía girls saw these photos, they asked, “Where’s Ivan’s cap? His ears have to be freezing.”
Savina and Briana with Ed and Sandra but no hats
While visiting Stephanie and Cris, I was interested to see Stephanie get up to put on her coat, then sit back on the couch. I took a picture because I knew Ivan would want this documented. It is one thing to wear longjohns at the pool. Outdoors, you have to be prepared for inclement weather, even if other people are wearing swimsuits. It is something else entirely to put on your coat just to sit on the living room couch. Indoors, you are supposed to turn up the heat. When Cris decided that this was indeed what was called for, Stephanie objected strenuously. “I am not going to turn up the heat and pay an even higher heating bill when, if this country had socialized utilities, the power company would not be able to bilk us like they do!” she complained. Cris did not comment on this unusual rationale for putting on your coat to sit on the couch. She just turned up the heat.
A few minutes later, Stephanie got up to put on her sunglasses. I really wanted to take another picture but Stephanie told me I couldn’t. She said that I didn’t need any more pictures of her, though actually I did. I need a lot of pictures just for myself and even more for Ivan. If I do not take all the pictures I could possibly take, Ivan gets upset. When I visited Chuck and Kaarin, I took these pictures of the Barbie doll heads that Kaarin hung in their kitchen.
However, I failed to take any photos of the Barbie doll heads that Kaarin had hung outside on their patio. When I got home and showed Ivan the photos I had taken, mentioning that there were also Barbie doll heads hanging out on the patio, he said, “Where are the pictures of those Barbie doll heads?”
“I didn’t take pictures of those Barbie doll heads,” I told him. “It is the same concept, only outside. It is the same thing exactly. You just have to imagine it outside instead of inside.”
“I can’t,” said Ivan. “I need an actual picture.” He wrote to Chuck and asked him to take a picture of the Barbie heads outside. Chuck said that he could take a picture but that it would not be very high quality because their digital camera was so old. “I really need the pictures to be high quality,” said Ivan. “I will wait while you buy a new camera.”
This was the excuse my brother had been waiting for. He sent us a picture as soon as he bought the new camera.
Outdoor Barbie doll heads, low pixels
Outdoor Barbie doll heads, high pixels
When I told Ivan over the phone about Stephanie and the sunglasses, he said, “I hope you got a picture of that.” I told him that I hadn’t. He fretted. “I really needed a picture of that,” he said. Later, Stephanie sat on a different couch in her coat and sunglasses. I told her that Ivan needed a picture of her in her indoor sunglasses, so she let me take the picture. If the picture is for Ivan, whom Stephanie has never even met, I am allowed to take the picture. It is not everyone who has that kind of charisma and authority at a distance.
Stephanie with Fey
I kind of wondered about the sunglasses. Some people wear sunglasses indoors to look mysterious and glamorous. I have seen academics wear sunglasses and leather jackets on planes in order to look as if they might secretly be movie stars, although not even the most secretive of movie stars ever travels coach. But I knew Stephanie was not trying to be glamorous. For one thing, she didn’t want me to take her picture, which naturally would not be the case if she were being glamorous. For another thing, she was not wearing a leather jacket.
It turned out that she was wearing sunglasses because, lying face up on the couch, she had the light in her eyes. The living room has a fancy antique light fixture, a kind of chandelier but without dangling parts. When Stephanie and Cris moved into the house, the chandelier had special bulbs that were painted on the bottom so that there wouldn’t be a glare, but when the bulbs burned out Stephanie couldn’t find the same kind of lightbulb so she replaced them with regular bulbs that do glare. “I am kind of worried about this house,” she told me. “The people who owned it before took great care of it and made all kinds of improvements, but then Cris and I move in and we replace the fancy lightbulbs with regular lightbulbs and pretty soon things start going to wrack and ruin around us.”
Stephanie knows nothing about living in wrack and ruin. Their house is almost pristine. It is true that they have two televisions in the living room but Stephanie assures me that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.
Here is something that Cris and Stephanie have in their house that Ivan and I do not have in our house: a table with nothing on it but a cloth and a vase of flowers. Often, Nim was on it as well, although technically cats are not allowed on the tables. So cursory a fiction is this, however, that it was brought up just once and then never mentioned again. In our house, the no-cats-on-table rule is a very important one and I bring it up at least twelve times a day, every time Gaston and Harley walk across the table.
In our house, there are papers on all the table tops and wrack and ruin are just around the corner.
It is true that we have been getting rid of stuff.
Getting rid of a few motherboards
But we still have an awfully long way to go.
If necessary, we might move things into the yard. In Hanksville, they do not throw metal parts away. They make dinosaurs out of them and put them out in the yard. This is an idea that we had not thought of, but it is not a bad idea. It is really not a bad idea at all.
Postscript: I am beginning to wonder whether Ivan is the one who gave me the digestibility in sheep bibliography. It is true that I have no conclusive evidence, but there are suspicious indications. Just this morning he sent me a link to a web page offering information about donkeys, as well as a helpful email regarding the use of donkeys to guard your sheep. It was not long after that that he sent me a link concerning the role of the donkey in the culture of the Mediterranean. These might have been interesting, possibly even vital sources for me if I had ever offered any hint that I was looking into donkeys. Apparently deciding that, since I have never said explicitly that I am not looking into donkeys, I probably am or will be, Ivan sent me the links on general principles. It is these general principles that make it so hard to get rid of stuff that could prove to be valuable. After all, one of these pages might very well turn out to have answers we really need.
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org/audrey.html