Thursday, October 22, 2009

#129 - This Mess We're In

This Mess We're In

10/22/09 (#129)

"Sorry about the mess. We just, um…well, that's just how we live."

When I said that phrase to a friend who recently visited my house for the first time, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Normally, I would have pretended that our normally immaculate home had recently served as temporary lodging for a band of Visigoths ("friends of friends," I would insist, "how could I turn them away?") or that my daughter's tornado experiment had proved surprisingly effective---and my guest would have politely insisted that her house was even worse or told the preposterous lie that the house didn't look messy at all. It's a common script, and most folks are dutiful in delivering their lines---and I'm tired of it.

Here's the truth: We use our dining room table as a horizontal filing cabinet, and our cat apparently believes that any semblance of order is the dog's doing and works diligently every night to make the entire table look like the world's least-organized yard sale table. The cat is wrong, of course, as the dog is a frequent contributor to the mess, be it paw prints, water dish drippings, and counter scraps snatched and absconded to other rooms. Then there's the seven-year old, who will dutifully put away anything we ask, but without that command, will leave anything, anywhere, at any time - resulting in a hallway table cluttered with band-aid wrappers, naked dolls, half-full water glasses, random crayons and a bike helmet.

Lest it seem I'm passing the buck, I am no better. The back of the rocking chair in the living room is a convenient repository for outerwear, and as the week goes on, the weight of the accumulated jackets and pullovers create a precarious imbalance that eventually has to be addressed as a safety measure - and then the vacant chair back becomes an irresistible magnet for the next jacket removed. My home office looks like the scene of a piling contest, and at any given moment, every contestant has a shot at winning.

And don't even get me started on dishes. My wife and I rarely do preemptive strikes on the mounting dish pile, and grudgingly begin washing only when silverware shortages make it a necessity. On the rare occasion they're all clean, we usually order takeout so that we can preserve the kitchen like a museum set.

But the fact is, we LIVE in our house. Live, an action verb, meaning to concentrate on the activity and not the aftermath. I would love for our house to resemble a page from Dwell magazine, studiously austere and symmetrically ordered, but the only way OUR house is going to look like that is if we hire an editor from Dwell to come in every other day and tidy it all up for us. We have animals and hobbies and jobs and junk mail and distractions, and worst of all, we have a television, which, when you look directly at it, allows us to avoid seeing anything else on our list of accumulations.

Yes, we have more "stuff" than we need. But we also have more sentiment than we need, so every tchotchke ever received is somewhere in the house, every painting made by our seven-year old amateur artist is tucked somewhere, every outgrown sweater is stacked in a cluttered closet in case one day we miraculously lose the five inches of height we've put on since these aging garments fit.

Yet I'm tired of being embarrassed by the fact that we have better things to do with our life than create the illusion of perfection. We take care of the essential stuff---the cat box is cleaned daily, the fridge rarely has outdated science experiments, and our neglect never escalates to a health concern. (When the dishes do get washed, they're spotless.) I recall Frank Zappa, in his autobiography, noting that he was attracted to musicians with strange odors and bad teeth because it indicated that they had more important things on their mind than showering and flossing. Well, Frank would be pretty comfortable at our place. (Though he'd likely be disappointed by the gaping hole in the Z section of my CD rack.) I don't believe that everyone who is tidy has nothing better to do with their time---I appreciate the sense of calm that comes with a clean house, and understand the pursuit of that feeling. I'm simply tired of pretending that I engage in that pursuit on every day except the one when you came to visit.

Giving up the obligatory apologies for a messy house will be a challenge---I've had a lifetime of training that incorrectly correlates neatness with virtuousness. Cleanliness is next to godliness? I'm calling bullshit on that adage. God isn't up there rating our home like a Zagat mystery shopper assessing hotel quality. God knows that I give up my bus seat for the elderly (and nearly anyone else who needs it), God knows my daughter is the first responder when one of her classmates falls on the playground, and God knows that my wife would severe her right arm if it meant her daughter would have a better life because of it. If God is up there giving demerits because the pasta pan sits on the stove for three days, then God needs to find a hobby.

Would I prefer a tidy home where finding scissors isn't a challenging treasure hunt that often ends in disappointment? Certainly. Should we have told the woman who sold us our house that we had no need for the dishwasher she offered to leave for us? The word "duh" appears somewhere in that answer. But would I trade any of the positives in my life for consistently vacant kitchen counters and a carefully cataloged basement? Absolutely not. And from now on, I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

©2009 wpreagan

Friday, September 18, 2009

#128 - Pressing Buttons

Pressing Buttons

9/18/09 (#128)

Visiting with Nick and Lindsey recently, my pass through their living room was interrupted by a seismic jolt from the past: Sitting on their desk was a large jar filled with hundreds of random, colorful sewing buttons. The stash, I learned, had belonged to her mother, and Lindsey's fondly recalled memories of these buttons elicited pangs of nostalgia. Plunging my hand into the bowl felt like I was reaching into my memory, recalling my own mother's sizable collection of random buttons. While Lindsey spoke of her history with the buttons (they had only recently arrived at her house, and she was freshly excited about them), my head drifted miles and years away.

Of all the toys I remember from my youth, the tin full of buttons that resided on my mother's sewing machine ranks among my favorites. My mother sewed a lot when I was young---with four kids, the ability to make/modify/repair was surely a cost-effective skill---and had collected pounds of buttons over the years: extras from button-cards purchased for particular garments, odd buttons that had become detached from a shirt of unknown origin, others snipped from garments destined for discard. My mother had built the collection over years, the span of time revealed in the diverse button design.

Mom's collection was stored in a pale blue canister that once held some arcane brand of chewable caramels, dented and dinged but stalwart in its duty. Shaking the can produced a fantastic sonic as buttons of various sizes and weights clanged the walls, though it was an unwieldy maraca for a young boy. When that container was eventually outgrown, the buttons were transferred to a larger tin, this time a vessel produced for transporting hard candy. I missed the familiarity of the original tin, but I reveled in the extra space that I knew would one day be filled.

What's so fun about a big can of buttons? Quite simply, they were a sensual delight:

Sound: For a fan of everyday sonic experiences (the erratic symphony of traffic, the honking of geese flying overhead, the industrial rhythms of machines), dumping several pounds of buttons onto a tabletop is an aural delight. Swishing the pile, hearing the quiet friction of hundreds of bits of plastic, wood, and metal; the sharp, thin sound of tapping thin mother-of-pearl buttons together like castanets; later, the noisy chaos as I scooped them in handfuls and returned them to their metal container.

Touch: Diving my hand into the depths of the little discs offered a tactile splendor. I reveled in the soft resistance of the hard buttons, my fingers clearing a path that was immediately refilled by cascading clicks as they nestled into the disappearing gap. Plus, there were the textures of the individual buttons---old buttons weaved of hardened leather, the textured edges of newer buttons (this was the 70's, mind you), and the cool smoothness of jacket buttons that seemed to be made of stone.

Sight: Like hundreds of puzzle pieces that would never fit together, the buttons could be arranged in infinite number of creative patterns---a ring of small orange buttons around a large center button to make a button black-eyed susan; a sloppily arranged universe, each planet represented by a different color, size and style; vertical stacks, trying for maximum height with a tower of regularly smaller tiers; experiments in symmetry, shifting shapes and colors into familiar and fantastic patterns.

I recognized several of the buttons in Lindsey's jar as twins from my mother's collection, as if Lindsey's home had been a parallel universe to my own. (Fairly parallel to many of our friend's youths, I'm sure. Especially those homes with sewing machines.) Like our minds collect moments in a cluttered and disorderly manner, small handfuls from Lindsey's jar invoked random recollections: wooden dowel buttons like those snipped from a worn-thin camelhair coat; bright orange plastic discs that we had used when my mother made a tiny shirt for my stuffed chimpanzee Zip; even a couple of those large mother-of-pearl buttons, their original use a mystery but forever locked in my memory as playthings.

There's a parenting adage assuring that when you buy a toy for a child, the part they'll like best is the box. That's because the more particular and exacting a toy is, the more limited it is for use - a model of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise might be really cool, but it's fairly confined to being the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Yet the box in which it came can be a firehouse, a castle, a boat, anything that the imagination allows. That's what I recall about the buttons: they were colorful and tactile building blocks that could be used in myriad ways---not one of which included them being a button.

©2009 wpreagan

Friday, February 13, 2009

# 127 - Columbia House Rules

Columbia House Rules

2/13/09 (#127)

If you’re as old as I am, you can probably wax nostalgic about Columbia House Records. If not, you will probably raise an eyebrow in disbelief to hear about it: “Let me get this straight, you had to tape a penny to a thin-cardboard postcard you found in the Sunday newspaper, transcribe into the card’s dozen little white boxes various six-digit numbers that corresponded to tiny images of the album art, and in return you’d get a dozen vinyl albums in the mail?” It’s true. Though sometimes, the Sunday paper insert included a sheet of little stamps, one for each record, so you’d lick and affix rather than writing in the numbers.

I loved Columbia House. Their newspaper inserts featured an improbably diverse list of albums, from Kris Kristofferson to Quiet Riot to The Captain and Tennille to The Fiddler on the Roof. I remember sitting with the multi-fold flyer at the kitchen table, circling the sure-things and putting little questions marks next to others, fifteen choices pared down to eleven, or ten, because Kiss Alive II was a double album choice and used up two of my picks. I loved it so much that I often went through the selection process even if I had no intention of placing the order. It was window shopping, but instead of staring at clothes through a storefront and imagining how I’d look if I could wear them, I imagined my burgeoning vinyl collection would allow me to segue from Billy Squire to the Talking Heads.

Of course, you didn’t really get a dozen albums for a penny. That was step one; steps two through seven involved buying six more club selections at regular price. The danger was the regular club updates that arrived every four weeks, each including a selection-of-the-month album that you would receive automatically if you didn’t return the enclosed postcard and check the box, “No, I do not wish to receive Donna Summer’s Bad Girls.” My negligence in returning these cards had me carting many an unopened album to my local used record store during my membership periods, but because Columbia House sent cheaply-made knock offs of the albums purchased in stores---thinner vinyl, plain-paper inner sleeves instead of glossy sleeves with lyrics and photos, double albums without the deliciously large fold-open centerfold---I was often rebuffed, ruefully carrying home my duplicate Cars album.

When my meager finances allowed, the card went off in the mail. The requisite “allow four to six weeks for delivery” was always brutal at that age, when a week was a significant portion of time (these days, they go so fast that my wall calendar is perpetually a month or more behind.) Eventually, the glorious day would come: I’d get home from school to find an oversize cardboard box leaning against the front door; heavy in the hands, I’d double-step the stairs up to my bedroom where I’d tear up the glued flaps and fill the room with the scent of cellophane.

I’d spread the albums across the bed, sifting through the titles, intoxicated with anticipation of sounds that would soon emanate from the turntable with the cracked plastic dust cover. No albums open yet, just laying the LPs side by side, admiring the artwork: Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits (the most ubiquitous album among my circle of friends---thanks Columbia House!); Led Zeppelin IV (or man carrying sticks, or Zoso, or whatever you wanted to call it), Some Girls by the Stones, the Pretenders, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and on and on. A thumbnail splitting the plastic protection of the first selection, the arm settling onto the album, and the comforting sound of the needle tracking nothing for a few moments before the music began.

I love that vinyl has become such a boutique medium these days, an indie badge of honor, at once modern and retro. I no longer own a record player (when it comes to new music, I rely on the kindness of friends, who dupe to disc) but along with the sonic warmth and particular audio characteristics of this analog medium, I appreciate the resurgence of cover art, where the operative word is art---I grew up seeing album cover thumb-tacked to bedroom walls; no one hangs puny little CD covers on their wall.

I miss that tactile interaction with my music, those extra sensual dimensions---the expanse of the 12” x 12” cover art, the whiff of the newly opened record, the physical ritual that preceded and accompanied the sonic experience. These days, we can consume massive amounts of music without ever holding the product in our hands ---along with radio, we have Pandora streaming from the PC, iTunes loading up the portable player, music delivered straight to the ears without your hands and eyes being involved at all.

There's no explaining it to young people who only know music as piped in on the Internet. Immediate gratification. Any title available in an instant. But to steal a line from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, “Although Eating Honey is a very good thing to do, there is a moment before you begin to eat it which is better than when you are.” The LP is an interactive experience, more than a mere soundtrack to our day.

I doubt I’ll ever dive back into the vinyl realm (I confess, I have succumbed to the advantages of digital efficiency) but I like to imagine my daughter coming home one day with an record tucked under her arm, slicing the cellophane with her thumb nail and gingerly laying the album on the turntable, laying back on her bed, losing herself in the lyric sheet and liner notes as the music fills the room. Even if she doesn’t have the pleasure of opening a cardboard box packed tight with new records from The Shins, Rapids, Pure Country Gold and nine other artists, I hope she understands that things haven’t always been the way they are today. Once upon a time, “convenient” meant taping a penny to a little card and patiently waiting for the prize.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

#126 - The Inequities of Santa

The Inequities of Santa

1/11/09 (#126)

"Dad, do you believe in Santa?"

My daughter asked that question a couple of weeks ago as we watched a Christmas movie, her eyes glued to mine as she looked for parts of the answer that might not be contained in the words. (I have learned not to underestimate the ability of a kindergartener to interpret body language and verbal pauses.) Such inquiries come each Christmas now, last year's couched in logic rather than faith: How Santa could get into our house since we didn't have a fireplace? I dodged that one by explaining that Santa only uses fireplaces when they're available, asking her to consider all of the people who live in apartment buildings. Santa has more magic up his sleeve than just the ability to get down a chimney, I assured.

This year's question was so direct that it caught me off guard. She isn't old enough to understand the improbable physics that would allow a chubby old man and an octet of flying deer to traverse the entire globe in 24 hours, but since most Christmas movies feature a character wrestling with this very question, it was inevitable that she would ask the nearest adult authority. (And since I do pretty well when we play along with Cash Cab at home, she seems to think of me as a good source for knowledge.) I made a face like I was giving it serious thought, and replied, "You know Sage, I do." She nodded her head, looked back at the television, and after a similarly contemplative pause, replied, "I do, too."

Within a week, my effort to maintain the charming myth of the man whose belly jiggles like a bowl full of jelly would come back to bite me.

In every household, Santa plays by a different rule book. In some homes, Santa brings all the gifts; in others, he brings only one toy. (In ours, it's the latter.) In some houses, Santa brings the most expensive gift; elsewhere, the most special gift. (In ours, it's something special.) We are trying to raise our daughter to be reasonable about her materialism, so while Sage scores a respectable booty of books, art supplies, dolls and games from her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we try to keep the focus on the joy of getting gift surprises and enjoying the kindness of family rather than seeing the holiday as a chance for maximum ka-ching. This year, "Santa" brought her a lovely stuffed fairy doll that she had adored for most of the year, and she loved it. It looked like something Santa's elves could have made, which is a bonus for us with regard to keeping the myth intact. (I figure it's only a matter of time before Sage asks what kind of merchandising deal the North Pole has negotiated in order to build and distribute so many branded products. One of these years, the question will be, "Do elves make iPods, or does Santa hire contingent workers from Apple?")

Christmas was a wonderful day. The next day, Sage started seeing her friends again, and my wife heard the following conversation between Sage and one of her friends:

"What did Santa bring you?"
"A fairy doll," Sage replied. "It's so sweet, with beautiful glittery wings."
"No, I mean your BIG gift, what did Santa bring?"
My wife cringed. "Santa", she and Sage learned that day and again on days that followed, had delivered significantly larger and more expensive gifts to Sage's friends. Sage didn't say so, but she's a girl who is acutely aware if two glasses of milk are poured with microscopically different volumes---I'm certain these inequities did not escape her attention. Hadn't she been good all year? (She had, and then some. Her teachers regularly remark on her kindness and empathy, "the first child on the scene to help an injured classmate.") Santa had given her a sweet little doll, but her friends scored DVD players, video game systems, 10,000 piece Lego sets and other monstrosities. I expected her to report, "I do believe in Santa, dad---and I believe he's a bastard."

I don't begrudge anyone for giving gifts to their children, and I'm sure these gifts brought great joy to those kids. But as my wife asked, why does Santa have to bring the high-dollar gift? Santa has a workshop staffed by elves at the North Pole, not a factory in Taiwan that manufacturers Bluetooth-enable devices. It slays me to think of Sage feeling that Santa thinks less of her than other children. My wife felt it even more, coming home the day she heard that conversation and uttering urgently, "Forget this, I'm telling her the truth. I'd rather than be NO Santa than an unfair Santa."

It seems to me there are three options for us:

  1. Up the ante on "Santa's" delivery. What the heck, this is America, what are with thinking with this "reasonable materialism" crap? We aren't going to save this economy with "reasonable materialism". When in Rome, consume like the Romans do.
  2. Explain that Santa brings one gift to each child, but that some parents also give additional toys as "from Santa" because they want the child to feel like Santa loves them. But that defines Santa so strictly, and I don't want Sage to be explaining these rules to classmates whose families have Santa bring everything.
  3. Kill the man completely. Yay, won't that be a fun conversation. I know she'll learn the truth someday, but I don't want that to be at age six. Yet is that worse than the smallness she must have felt to learn that Santa was far more generous to some friends than to her?

It amazes me how much baggage Santa left behind at our house. That was his gift to my wife and me. Thanks, Santa. I'd have been fine with a lump of coal.

I once attended a poetry slam where a performer from Washington DC spoke of when he learned that Santa wasn't real: He peeked into the bathroom one day before Christmas and saw his mom scrubbing toys, the Goodwill bag on the floor, steam and the smell of bleach rising from the tub as his mother washed off any evidence that the toy wasn't new. When he saw the toys under the tree on Christmas morning, "from Santa", he understood that Santa was a ruse.

Let me be clear, I feel very blessed: There are families where Santa doesn't visit (literally and figuratively) and I'm grateful for our good fortune. But honestly, it's tempting to toss out Kris Kringle and his ho, ho, hos as the benefactor of Christmas. I prefer the sentiment of Charlie Brown's pathetic Christmas tree thriving under Linus' attentive care; the people of Bedford Falls rallying to the rescue of George Bailey; I want "Santa" to be that mother from Washington DC, scrubbing used toys with hot water and bleach, providing a happy holiday with what money and effort she had available. That's the Christmas spirit that I want Sage to appreciate. That's a Santa I can believe in.

Though I don't know how I'll explain how a middle-aged woman from Anacostia who smells vaguely of Clorox was able to get down our non-existent chimney.

©2009 wpreagan