Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the 100th Anniversary of My Mother's Birth, I Take on the 100 Thing Challenge. In My Junk Drawer.



Here's my December column for East Village Magazine, examining the archeological dig that is my junk drawer:

A few years back a guy named Dave Bruno had had it with consumerism and decided to reduce his personal possessions to 100 things. He blogged about it and started a worldwide movement, The 100 Thing Challenge.

This month, just in time for the ceaseless barrages of the holidays, he’s publishing a book, The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul. I bet it will sell more than 100 copies.

I don’t trust people who make spirituality out of everything. I don’t trust “cleanliness is next to godliness,” for example; nature presumably made by God is frequently elegant but also messy—not to mention, bloody. And I don’t like hints that because I might be a little challenged, stuff-wise, I might be in mortal peril.

However, I was raised by a queen of clean, a housfrau of frugality, and this month would have been her 100th birthday. My mom would have loved the idea of the 100 Thing Challenge. So it seems that the stars are suggestively and neatly aligned for me to make a gesture of propitiation.

When I first heard something about Bruno’s new book on NPR, I muttered to my cats, “Hell, I’ve got more than 100 things in one damn drawer.” The cats stared back sadly.

I meant my junk drawer.

Doesn’t everybody have one? A drawer, usually in the kitchen, where we stash our tawdry little bits of anxious life? A cache of personal anthropology – mirror to our worries, the vault for small stuff, unsellable on EBay, that we “might use” someday? The junk drawer blends the impulse to hoard and that persistent need for security. And, as another Dave, the “happiness researcher” Dave Buettner has been pointing out, “evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired more for security than freedom.” Yikes. Maybe the junk drawer is a grown-up’s safety valve.

Unlike my mom, I am not obsessed with order. But the idea of exploring my junk drawer had a certain appeal, like going on an archeological dig. The day after Thanksgiving, still high on tryptophan and pumpkin pie, I pulled it off its squealing tracks, and heaved it, making sure to bend my knees, onto the living room floor.

Sitting crosslegged on the carpet, I eventually pulled out and listed 140 things on a legal pad.

At first, it all made sense, a logical collection of utility: stapler, scissors, cat brush, three Scotch tape dispensers, two lint rollers, three soft cloths for cleaning glasses, along with the glass cleaner to do it, 17 “forever” stamps, two Listerine pocket paks, two single-use tubes of Krazy Glue, a tube of lock de-icer – never used, a gift from my traumatized hubby after we once got stranded at midnight after a party on Calumet.

And then, all the stuff obviously there because it MIGHT be useful. Who in their right mind, really, would not understand the reason for 200 rubber bands from Flint Journals and bunches of asparagus? Who would question the need for 37 paper clips, 11 black document clips – great for bags of cereal or potato chips – 9 thumbtacks, a single push pin, a half-dozen twist ties, 15 AAA batteries, 5 AA batteries, 4 C batteries, and an extra nine-volt? There’s even 47 cents in change, in case. Just in case.

But the next layer, from the neglected, dusty back, creeped me out, yielding a succession of items of mysterious origin and way past their time.

What’s this? A fold-up hiking compass! Cool, but I haven’t been on an actual hike, in the woods, for about 20 years. Two plastic canisters with undeveloped rolls of film – anachronism – I’ve had a digital camera for years. Anyway, did I really want to see what might be revealed, what aggravating family gathering, what possibly compromising party? Ah, I remember this little battery-operated hand-held fan with a Las Vegas logo – cherished gift from a compassionate friend when I was still having hot flashes – now long unused, its batteries dead.

Then, tectonic plates of heartbreak and abandoned hope: the brass nametag for my late cat Joey One, dead for five years, his ashes buried in the back yard; a “Women for Kerry/Edwards” campaign button: Rosie the Riveter, with her plucky “We can do it” logo. And a pillbox of folded-up notes I’d written to my parents – saved from their stuff after they died a dozen years ago – notes neither imaginative nor redeeming. “Dear Mom…thank you for all you’ve done for us. We love you.” “It was sure good to be here. P.S. I had a snack before I left.” Why on earth are these still here?

Finally, just a pile of random and marginally disgusting stuff: two clothespins, one red plastic, one wood; a chipped ceramic pentacle tile; a plastic attachment for a long-gone vacuum cleaner; a six-ounce bottle of green automotive touch-up paint; a dry erase marker; two heavy duty locks; a pack of grape Pez; a Ya-Ya’s moist towelette, two packs each of pepper and salt; a half roll of chewable papaya enzymes; eight tiny plastic bags of replacement buttons; a broken birthday candle; two triangular pieces of dry cat food. Easy calls, all – to the trash.

The drawer empty, finally I stood up and took a deep breath. The cats, unimpressed, sniffed around my desultory piles.

So, since I am at least a part-time academic, I retreat now from my dig to profess what this all means.

In summary, I don’t know.

There’s actually a discipline devoted to “things” these days, called, remarkably, “Thing Theory.” An English professor named Bill Brown wrote a book about it. And we poets know how William Carlos Williams declared, “no ideas but in things.” But what ideas in which things?

What I mined from my junk drawer was only this: there are things we accumulate, for whatever reason – out of torpor, hope, sentimentality, or practicality – that give us comfort. Or maybe that’s just me – me and my curious and incorrigibly disheveled existence.

Here’s what I can say for the condition of my soul, my act of contrition in honor of my mother: pared and purged down to about 70 things, the drawer slipped back onto its metal track a bit more lightly.

Would that my restless mind, busy accumulating the next drawerful of comforting trinkets, went along.


The Cat Bastet said...

I'm proud of you for tackling this daunting task. I just have one question: what is the purpose of chewable papaya enzymes?

UM-Flint, Associate Professor Department of History said...

I note the styrofoam cups for the clips and rubberbands (the violet asparagus bands that do not stretch easily to fit anything but asparagus have been saved), and stapler is closer to hand. The thing count is reduced. Wait til after Christmas. All the stores (Bed, Bath, and Beyond leading the way) will advertise storage and box and organizing systems . . .