Thursday, November 26, 2015

Too Much Stuff

The attic light is dim, the plank flooring uncertain, and everything’s covered with a thin layer of black, dry rot wood dust filtered down from the 130 year old roof structure. In a stack of photocopier paper boxes I lifted yet another lid to reveal English and woodworking textbooks from the early 1980s and a couple of my ex-wife’s high school yearbooks. I put the yearbooks in the save pile and the rest in a trash bag. That box, along with others had been carried to the attic 20 years ago this past fall and never opened again.

The ‘90s were apparently a hopeful time, a time when we thought we’d need that box of books, intended to refinish that old piece of furniture, intended to sort all the children’s clothing and share it with neighbors and Goodwill. Somebody told me once the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cleaning out all this shit is starting to feel like hell.
View of the newly organized Cherry St. attic. 

I text my ex-wife to say I’ll be leaving a couple more boxes on her front porch. “More baby clothing?” she asks, sarcastically. “Yes,” I sheepishly reply. “I just don’t feel competent judging keepsakes from throwaways.”

I’d already carried down a 30-year collection of Old House Journal magazines, my hard-copy archive before online databases made it pointless, those boxes of children’s clothing my 20-something kids wore 20-something years ago, worn luggage with broken zippers, two large trash bags filled with plush stuffed animals my sisters and parents had lavished my daughter with – sent up here when she outgrew them, a bin of ice cycle lights that once seemed a good idea on the front porch, framed drawings I bought my grandmother in Paris 30 years ago that came back to me after she died, and inexplicably, a trash bag filled with dirty, worn out tennis shoes. They have the wear marks of a skate boarder. I texted a photo of the shoes to my middle son, Jack in Denver. “Oh, yeah, I had a plan for those, once.”

I'm just scratching the surface of what's been packed into this Cherry Street house.

All of this caps two years of cleaning out the bedrooms and closets of my grown children, the garage, endless cabinets, vanities and drawers filled with endless boxes and handfuls of crap, the garage attic, and, oh yeah, the basement. Aargh! I've spent hundred of dollars boxing and shipping things to the kids in Denver and Japan. Every time I think I’ve got it all cleaned out, I open another cabinet and find yet more stuff that was saved years ago and is utterly useless or unneeded now.

I have a theory about stuff in storage: Our need to save things is bound only by our ability to do so.  It’s often said that gold fish will grow to fill the size bowl they live in – in a tiny bowl, they stay tiny, in a big tank, they grow bigger. Storage space and the stuff that fills it works the same way.

I accelerated the clearing out to prepare for my new wife, Andrea and step-kids to move in. But preparing her River Road house for sale included packing another entire house of personal belongings, cleaning out an attic, a basement, a 30 x 60 pole barn, and a 2-car garage-sized artist studio. 

Those two sentences are short, but it took months.

This year included garage sales, a filled 20-yard dumpster, Facebook garage sales, endless trips to Goodwill, shit given to neighbors and friends, a steady flow of stuff carelessly thrown into the blue trash bins behind the Cherry Street garage, and a couple days before the closing of Andrea’s house, a final desperate call to a contractor to haul a trailer full of stuff to my garage and a second trailer full to a landfill. And, oh yeah, all the things I put on the curb with a sign that said, "Free."

At least nobody took the sign and left the stuff. That's actually happened to me before. After all, the sign did say, "Free."

Along the way I’ve been reminded of something an Englishman said to me years ago: “You American’s buy cheap shit at Wal-Mart, then put it in a garage sale a year later, then go to Wal-Mart and buy more cheap shit. You Yanks are really into ‘THINGS,'” he sneered, jabbing air-quote fingers like pokes in the eyes.

The recently cleaned out garage is full again.
More hard choices.
I was insulted at the time, but the dude was 100% right.

It’s not just that we’ve bought and saved too much shit. We’ve been trying to consolidate two households into one. By the time we closed Andrea's River Road house sale earlier this month, the Cherry Street garage was filled to the gills as was a 14’ x 14’ storage unit. The cleaned out attic and basement, refilled with new stuff.

We set aside some nice rugs from our combined houses, a nearly new love seat, lamps, TVs, coffee tables and patio furniture for our sons in Denver. We loaded it all up last Wednesday in a small U-Haul and drove 1,100 miles to Colorado. I woke Friday morning in cold, snow-piled Colby, Kansas and looked out the motel window at our U-Haul full of the possessions we were now dragging across the country, pondering all this . . . STUFF!

Having been in Japan just a month ago, I’m still considering the mammoth gulf between America and other nations and our status as the world’s master consumers and hoarders. I keep waiting for the planet to start wobbling and thumping like an imbalanced car tire, all from the amassed weight of the United States.

But perhaps the next generation will be better at this than mine. As I was texting photos of things that could be loaded on the truck to Denver, Jack replied at some point, “Will it hurt your feelings if we don’t want something you’re bringing?”

Smart boy. But I should have saved and brought him that damn bag of tennis shoes and hauled them to his attic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Double Stuff Oreos Symbolize Everything That's Wrong With America

I grew up taking the Oreo for granted. Like the tablespoon and measuring cup, the ratio of chocolate biscuit to creamy filling was a fixed measure with no need for adjustment. But like all other things American these days, the set standard isn't enough. So after some 90 years after the original Oreo, the Double Stuff Oreo was born.

That’s America, the land of the Big Gulp, the Hummer, endless breadsticks, and McMansions. It would be admirable if we were reaching for ever more greatness, but we're not. We're just gluttons reaching for more. 

In Japan a couple weeks ago visiting my son, there were ample reasons to ponder this. At the grocery store I found no such thing as a family-sized bag of Ruffles or Doritos. They sell both chips in Japan, but everything is sold in smaller amounts. The largest latte I could get at the local coffee shop was the equivalent of a standard small or “tall” latte in America. And the largest bag of Oreos available is well smaller than the standard package in the U.S. Poverty does not guide their choices. They’re simply different than us.
A typical pack of Oreos in Japan, with 3 sleeves, each
holding 9 regular Oreos. 
But make mine a diet, please, I'm cutting back.
When I was a kid back in the '60s, 6½ ounce cokes were still in vending machines. At restaurants and soda fountains there were small and large Cokes. The large was about the size of the modern-day fast-food small. Sixteen ounce, 8 pack bottles were available at the grocery story, but they were meant for sharing. Getting one entirely to yourself was a rare treat – when mom and dad were away and you could obscure the guilty party. This was not a time of poverty. America's economy was booming. People's expectations were simply lower. Now days the 6 ½ ounce Coke is a quaint historic artifact and the 32 oz. large is ubiquitous at fast food outlets. 

A study showed that Double Stuff Oreos actually only contain 1.86% times the stuffing of original Oreos. This is also very American: we’re never satisfied with what we have, and when we get more, it’s not actually what was promised.

And there’s the IPA, which stands for India Pale Ale, a hoppy beer created by the British in the early 1800s, a bit bitter with an alcohol content around 4 or 5%.  I learned to like this light-bodied beer while studying in London in the ‘80s. But at about the same time American craft brewers started tinkering with the IPA. Though it had served England pretty well for 160 years, it wasn’t . . . well . . . enough for us. Today the American IPA is far hoppier than it’s original English counterpart.

But even that’s not enough. Soon came the double IPA, the triple IPA, and yes, the quadruple IPA, hellatiously hoppy beers that tend to have names like “Sink The Bismark,” and “Hop Deranged,” with 10-14% alcohol. Even quadruple IPAs taste good – at first, but eventually the bitter bomb makes your tongue feel covered with dirty, cigarette-stained indoor/outdoor carpet.

Despite all the fun and creativity our fledgling craft beer industry has introduced to the previously boring American beer landscape, it’s penchant for useless excess reminds me of a little kid at the all-you-can-eat buffet, putting more and more sprinkles on his ice cream until the ice cream is at the decided minority.

And sadly for Americans, ice cream with mega sprinkles and a quadruple IPA don’t pair well. But who am I kidding? The "Ice Cream Sprinkle IPA," or the "IPA Ice Cream" can't be far away. Oh wait, I just googled it, there are recipes out there for IPA ice cream. I should have known.

The average square footage of an American home has doubled in the past 40 years. In my day job as a Realtor, I routinely show houses to middle class families who insist upon multiple “social spaces,” a 3-car garage, and that each of their children have their own bathroom. In their childhood, our own parents would have found this an unimaginable luxury. 

Sitting at my local coffee shop in the morning (with my medium-sized latte), I watch the moms drive by in their urban assault vehicles, multiple video screens hanging in front of the back seats so the kids won’t get bored on the way to school. I’ve asked lots of locals over the years why they drive such big cars. The standard answer: safety. This always blows my mind. We live in one of the flattest places on earth, in a county with not one single gravel road, and in wealthy communities with some of the best snow plowing equipment in the world. And yet more ridiculous, big trucks and large SUV’s tend not to make lists of the safest vehicles (being top heavy they roll over more easily in evasive driving situations).

The truth is pretty simple. Big is a fashion. Big is our style. Big is what we do. In America, if your stuff ain't big, you’re a loser.

What does all this do to us? The average American emits twice the carbon dioxide pollution of citizens in other developed western nations and we're twice as likely to be obese than a citizen of Europe and six times more likely than the average Japanese.

“We’re #1. We’re #1.”

And of course the Double Stuff Oreo wasn’t enough. Now we have the Mega-Stuffed Oreo. Where will this all end? You have to assume that ten years from now will we all be solo commuting to work in our own private busses, drinking Septuple IPAs, living in 10,000 square foot homes, and eating burger-sized Oreos.

Buy Kurt's new novel The Salvage Man

Buy Kurt's first novel Noblesville

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Foundling Wall

*During my separation and divorce 3-5 years ago, The Hoosier Contrarian blog became a bit of a raw diary of that painful journey. The response from people touched by those posts was rewarding. Organizers of Anderson University's Faith & Writing Conference were also apparently reading those posts. They asked me to come lead a workshop at last weekend's conference about memoir and self-confessional writing. Seemed like a good time to reshare an old post that I used last Saturday in my class at Anderson. 

The Foundling Wall, June 2013
In Medieval Europe foundling wheels came into use. They were lazy-susan-type devices built into the outer wall of a church as places to abandon babies. Mothers who couldn’t keep an infant, whose lives were too fractured to accommodate it’s tending could place their child within the wheel from outside the church and then turn the wheel, transferring the child safely inside where a priest would find it. It was a way to let go of a precious burden without doing it physical harm.

The wall of the building where these devices were installed came to be known as foundling walls.

I’ve gone through separation and divorce in the past 2 years and been handed self-help books from friends during this time, but nothing spoke more directly to me than Thik Nhat Hans book “Reconciliation.” It’s not about reconciliation in marriage, but personal reconciliation with the inescapable realities of life.

I dog-eared a page that lists the Buddha’s Five Remembrances and underlined one that struck me deeply:

“All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of a nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. I cannot keep anything. I came here empty-handed, and I go empty-handed.”
The Chua An Lac Buddhist temple in Indianapolis
In the Vietnamese temple in Indianapolis where I’ve spent many recent Saturday mornings, we’re called to meditate on a simple counting from 1 to 10 to clear our mind of chaos. I did that for a long time, and still do. But Thik Nhat Hans called for meditating on well-wishing, compassion for others, and letting go of personal burdens. I went time and again to those two “Remembrances.” And so I’ve spent many of those meditation sessions within the towering temple, with the Buddha before me, making small mental journeys to a foundling wall in my mind to give away the things I can no longer tend. The things that are not really mine.

I made up my own rules about the foundling wall.

The foundling wall is a place where you let go of a piece of yourself, a part that speaks to your soul, something you conceived or nurtured with love and diligence – but that has become a painful burden to your or others you love. No one can force you to the foundling wall. To have something taken is theft. You have to give it freely. And no one can make the journey for you. You must go to the wall of your own resolve, and you must go alone.

I am a persistent person, often persisting beyond reason and logic. During my divorce I was hurt repeatedly by a two close friends who had a hard time accepting it. I kept trying to reclaim or nurture these fractured friendships — beyond reason and logic, blowing on the flickering embers of our connections, offering olive branches only to have them slapped from my hand or left to wither. At the same time I complicated the friendships by forcing my own need for reassurance upon my friends’ hurtful actions. I eventually saw I needed accept that we wouldn’t really be friends anymore, but simply acquaintances. That was hard to do — to accept that two people I loved and shared so much with would not be my close friends any longer.

But there was peace in letting go of those relationships, peace found in going to that foundling wall in my heart, kneeling down and laying those friendships in that turret-like device, symbolically turning it and letting them go. No pronouncement is needed at the foundling wall, just resolve to love and feel compassion for things you relinquise.

and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .

It’s not just a Buddhist calling. I learned it first as a Christian prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

While many parents of the middle ages were no doubt driven to the foundling wall by desperation, others must have had ample time to reflect and understand that while they could physically keep and care for the child, was not enough, there was something in the failing of their stars and their circumstances that would hurt the child. I can’t imagine their personal journey. But I can imagine mine.

I am a trained carpenter. I build things. There are many things in my home I’ve built with my own hands, like an oak porch swing. I designed it in my own mind, imagined its form, the joints, the flush-finished brass screws polished smooth with the sanding of the wood. It would all be built from wood I’d salvaged over the years, every piece pulled from a dumpster or garbage can. The discarded chalk tray from a school where I once taught would be the back rail of the seat. A stack of half-inch oak slats pulled from a garbage can would make the seat bottom and the back. Pieces of baseboard from a demolished house would make its armrests. Then I built it. For years my children sat there as I read to them when they were small, or they swung hard and wild with childhood friends, pumping their legs with reckless abandon, laughing, or they curled up and napped there on a long summer afternoon, or cuddled with their first love as a teenager. Many of my friends drank beer on that swing on warm summer nights and many a thunderstorm was watched from that swinging seat while lightening crackled across Old Town.

It’s just an object made from discarded wood. How does something like that worm its way into your soul? But in the division of property after the divorce, it will go to my ex-wife. It is not mine. I cannot keep it.

It’s a small item in the scheme of things, but a precious child of mine none-the-less. And so in yet another way, I knelt at that foundling wall in my heart, the place I take the things I cannot keep, no matter how much I want to. And there I gave it away. It was not mine. Even though I conceived and built it, it was never really mine. I am grown up enough  — just barely, to do such a thing – to let go of yet another piece of my identity.

and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . . and count to 10 . . .

But then a miracle!

An email arrived one day from my ex saying, “Why don’t you keep the porch swing? It belongs with the house.” She too has been to the foundling wall, the one in her own heart. And suddenly I find myself on the interior, receiving side of the wall while she kneels outside. I hadn’t imagined the easy return of this thing whose loss I had totally accepted.

But be warned: you can neither count on nor dare imagine the return of things left at the foundling wall. If you are prone to such mystical hopes and magical thinking, as I have been most of my life, then you do not belong at the foundling wall. Best keep clinging against reason to things that aren’t yours than to relinquish them as an emotional gimmick bundled to corrosive hopes of reclamation. 

There are so many people and things I have said goodbye to at the foundling wall these past two and a half years; family members, friendships, and possessions I’d nurtured with love and attached great expectation to. But that trying journey is now in the past. Regular, relatively peaceful day-to-day life surrounds me now and lies ahead as far as I can see. I knew that life once before, and it has returned to me now, in part because of the things I let go of.