April 27, 2012

The house we lived in when we lived in North Carolina was a permanent fixer-upper - something always needed to be done to it. The landlord was a good friend (and my boss for about a year) and he charged us no rent. Our agreement was that we would take care of all repairs and, theoretically at least, it would be in much better shape when we moved out than when we moved in. That way he could charge much more rent to the next people who moved in. It was an unusual agreement but it worked well for both of us. (Unfortunately for him this did not pan out. He and his wife were killed shortly after we moved out.)

We always liked to try to have a major home-improvement project done when we were out of town on vacation, so we don't have to be around while the carpenters, plumbers, or painters are tearing our world apart and essentially living in our house. Our last summer, the summer before we moved back to Pennsylvania, movers came in and took everything in our living room, dining room, and kitchen, and crammed it into our large storage shed in the back yard. Then our contractor removed all of the ancient wall-to-wall breeding grounds for primordial life and refinished the previously hidden oak floors.

Next the painters moved in with buckets, brushes, and (according to the lady who lived next door) a blasting stereo, to revitalize our fading walls with coats of Peachy Pudding and Corlsbud Canyon. As these things often go in the languid days of summer, the jobs proceeded a little slower than anticipated, so, instead of having all our furnishings moved back in before we returned home, the living room and dining room are still in the shed. It gave new meaning to dining al-fresco when you're eating a plate of spaghetti seated next to a lawnmower on one side and a wheelbarrow full of fertilizer on the other.

The work was almost done but upon our return we had a new problem. We don't want to move all of our old crap back into our nice new rooms. The number of objects that had taken up residence in our house sometimes seemed staggering. Friends brought over bowls and platters of food to parties, and never bother to reclaim their dishes. Friend's children left us jackets, games, sometimes even whole backpacks filled with unwanted junk.

On trash night, garbage from other peoples' lawns seems to teleport itself directly into the path of my oncoming feet, left for me to trip over and contemplate its significance. Is someone coming to reclaim this box of old telephone cords or is one of the kids saving it for a school project? Rather than try to interrogate every possible suspect about the sudden appearance of each new acquisition, I usually opted to shove questionable debris out of my path and hope someone else sorts it out before I have to. The huge stack of unclaimed junk was eventually stuffed in the shed as evidence of the success of this strategy.

Or consider some of our prized possessions - our books for example. Over the years (or decades, or millennium, as the case may be), we have accumulated a fabulously weighty collection. But, do we really still need a twenty volume set of World Book Encyclopedia, with the most up-to-date information from 1967, in a house with access to the Internet? How many more years will I fool myself into thinking I'm going to lug that copy of War & Peace to the beach with me next summer? And how soon will I be reviewing my first year physics textbook, in preparation for the Electricity and Magnetism course that I was planning on taking during the fall semester of 1975?

In perusing our book collection, what Laura and I realized is that all the books that we really loved we've already given away to someone else to read. The books that are left are ones that have been passed over, time and again, in favor of books we actually wanted to read. Does it impress visitors when they see all the shelves of important books that we've never had time to dust, let alone read? These were still in the shed, too.

And how about my record collection? I think I listened to one side of one record that year, mostly to reassure myself that I still listen to records, and justify keeping them until I have the chance to transfer them all over to cassette and then make a huge wall mural of all the irreplaceable cover art that I haven't bothered to look at in 40 years. The records now sit in our back room waiting for me to transfer them to CDs or MP3s.

So instead of moving everything back exactly where it was, we decided to only move things piece by piece, and only put things into our renewed house that we actually wanted. All the rest we'd planned sell, give away, or leave on our lawn for someone else's kids to take home. Just because we own all this stuff and have lugged it around with us for most of our adult lives, does that mean we are obligated to keep it forever? Most of that stuff has found it's way into our two back rooms here is Pennsylvania and in the basement all boxed up nice and neat. Are we going to force our relatives to have to sort through it all someday to see if they can find any reason why Uncle Joe barricaded his house with crap?

Back then I was afraid that project might take a while, but in the meantime our house remained clean and uncluttered. And dining in the shed was surprisingly romantic, especially by the candlelight from our 29 different sets of candlesticks.