Archive for February, 2016


I just read a provocative best-selling book, called “the life-changing magic of tidying up” by marie kondo (lower case hers), which is especially appropriate now that I’m doing a thorough emptying of my household.

First, the bad:  Ms. Kondo has a serious, and I mean serious, case of OCD.  From the time she was a small girl, she has thought of little else besides organizing, neatness, tidying, and discarding to a ruthless degree.  She believes nothing should be stacked lest it be crushed, rumpled or forgotten, and she even lines up her carrots vertically in the beverage holder of her refrigerator door.  Fortunately for her, she has turned her illness and need for control  – – er, I mean thoroughness  – – into a multi-million dollar business via her books, seminars, and private consultations around the world.

The good news is that while there is plenty in the book to make you gag, there is also much merit and profound truth in her concepts.

Why do we have so much stuff?  Because we don’t accurately grasp how much we own.  When we acquire something we want, it gives us a spark of joy.  The problem is, that spark is easily extinguished once we acquire it and use it.  When you are about to acquire something, or are sorting through things you already own,

decide not only if you will keep it, but where you’re going to put it.  If you cannot resolve the latter, then you cannot do the former!

And when the item no longer “sparks joy” (a phrase repeated throughout the book ad nauseum), it is time to let it go. We can’t really find joy in keeping our house clean when we make it so impossibly difficult to keep it that way.

How do we deal with clutter, the flotsam and jetsam in our lives?  We find ingenious ways to store it so we don’t see it.  Alas, that doesn’t make the amount of clutter go away, it simply hides it.

Putting things away doesn’t get rid of clutter.

Organizing clutter is an oxymoron.  We need to deal with the excess, not push it aside.  (Kind of like life.)

Choosing what to toss can be painful.  It’s sometimes easier to give it to a friend or loved one.

If you want to give something away, don’t push people to take it unconditionally or pressure them by making them feel guilty.

Oh!  I am so guilty of this.  When my mother died,  she left so many beautiful antiques and tschotchkes.  I knew I couldn’t keep them for lack of space, but I also felt guilty getting rid of them because her things  were so important to her and she was so emotionally invested in them.  So I implored my children to take them, as if that would relieve me of the guilt and responsibility in discarding them.  (A few things they actually wanted.  I’m talking about the stuff they didn’t want.)  And just recently I begged my son to take an antique bookcase, sentimental to me because it was the first piece of furniture my husband and I bought as newlyweds and it just seemed to represent the foundation of our marriage and the family we built.  He didn’t take it, but probably felt guilty about saying no because he knows how much that bookcase means to me.  (Look for it on craigslist!)

Oh, and here’s an important side note:

It’s extremely stressful for parents to see what children discard.

Yep.  It’s true.  A few years ago I gave my daughter a family heirloom, a huge, gorgeous handmade dining table that hosted all my childhood family and holiday celebrations.  But it was too big and impractical so after a few years, she wanted to return it.  I had no room now that I was living in smaller quarters.  So she gave it away.  I confess – – it killed me! (I’m over it now.)

Ideally, when we sort through our things, we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to give away. That puts a whole new perspective on it, I think.

By keeping only things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and need.

But here is the thing.  By looking through our memorabilia and deciding what stays and what goes, by physically handling and touching each thing, we are recognizing and confronting, and processing our past.  We can be thankful for the joy each item gave us, and the memories it sparked.  But in most cases, the sense of joy was at that original moment.  We live in the present; we cannot live in the past.  Time moves forward, never backwards.  So must we.

Another bonus part of this process:  it trains us in decision-making.  When we are forced to make a decision, it doesn’t come easy.  But it does get easier with practice.  And when we are finally able to make decisions without a huge amount of angst, we develop self-confidence.  We know who we are; what we want; what we need.

It’s funny about getting older, but buying and collecting stuff, rather than being a source of pleasure, becomes a burden, because we realize just how enslaved we are by our possessions.  I feel a bit wistful getting rid of stuff, but at the same time, it’s incredibly freeing.

And I’m not getting rid of everything.  Some things really do continue to “spark joy”  and those things remain dear. Those possessions I will keep – – for now.  And if I keep them until I die, my children have my permission to toss them without remorse, because the objects I identify with are unique to me and cannot be forced on another.  But I will try to keep the burden of cleaning up after someone else (me!) to a minimum, for their sake!





Wicked Cold

20160213_225428_resized.jpgIn the six years we’ve been in Maine, the coldest it’s ever gotten with wind chill factored in is -45F.  Right now it’s -12 outside, but the wind is blowing with several major gusts.  I recorded -55F.  Then I decided to press the “recall” button on our anemometer to see what I might have missed.  At 10:33 p.m. it was -67F with windchill!  That’s our newest record.  It will be fun to see what tomorrow brings, as the coldest part of a day is usually right before sunrise.

Our woodstove is serving us well, and currently is our only source of heat (we have radiant hydronic PEX heat under the concrete floor that can be used as a backup or boost, but it just hasn’t been necessary) .  Inside it’s a cozy 70F.  The fantastic closed-cell spray-foam insulation we used at the time of construction is proving that it was worth every penny.  Our house is airtight with no leaky drafts, and nice and cozy, easily retaining the heat from the woodstove and in the daytime, from passive solar.  I don’t expect to use more than  1 ½ – 2 cords of wood over the course of the entire winter (1 cord = 4′ x 4′ x 8′ of split and stacked wood). Considering the wood comes from our own land, it’s not a bad deal.

Stamp Collection

When I was a toddler, my grandfather started a stamp collection for me.  He collected plate blocks: this is four stamps at the corner of a sheet of stamps next to a serial number.  Every time a new U.S. stamp would come out, he would run to the post office and buy a plate block.  It was an inexpensive hobby (the cost of the face value of 4 stamps), and he attended to it diligently and doggedly, careful to not miss a single new issue, taking great care to preserve the stamps in a special album dedicated to this purpose.  Over the years, the single album grew to four.  My grandfather urged me to continue collecting as I grew into a teenager and then had a driver’s license and could run to the post office to buy my own stamps.  And I did maintain the collection out of love, respect, honor and gratitude to him until he died, even though truth be told, I had no real interest in the stamps.

So now I’m clearing out stuff and I found the albums.  I inquired at two different coin and stamp stores, and it turns out that the stamps are worth less than the face value!  The reason:  there is simply no interest, so there is no market.  I was told by both vendors, “Kids today aren’t interested in stamps, they’re interested in computer games.”  Only truly rare antique stamps or stamps with printing errors have any market value.

Going through the albums is a bit like time travel.  It gives a fascinating glimpse of modern American history from  the 1950s to the 1970s.  The stamps in those early years started out with dour portraits and plain monochrome designs, but thanks to the psychedelic sixties, suddenly US stamps were instilled with Love and peace and diversity; dedication and memorials and celebrations; the Beatles, Hollywood celebrities, athletes, endangered animals, Nobel scientists, medical and scientific discoveries, moon and Mars landings, food and farmers and educators.

I feel bad that no one will enthusiastically inherit this collection, and indeed, my grandfather’s stamps will now be used for postage.  Because most of the stamps are in the two- to twenty-five cent range, they will fill and decorate the entire right side of an envelope since it will take so many of them to meet our current postage rates.  I don’t plan on using them on envelopes to pay my bills; to the sentimentalist that I am, it seems disrespectful somehow.  Instead, I’ll use the old stamps to write personal letters and send greetings to friends.

Of course, that may also be hard to do, since nowadays people rely on email and social media to communicate.  Alas, like stamp collecting, the art of letter writing is mostly a relic, doubtful to return to prominence anytime soon.







Quiet Family Time

In this day and age of over-scheduling, running around till you drop (while wondering what it is that you accomplished), battling with kids over homework and computer time and crazy schedules that don’t even allow families to eat together much less communicate other than by text messages, I was really happy to receive this candid photo of my son and two of his kids playing Clue together.  I’m so proud of them that despite all the craziness associated with urban living, job stress, and not enough time to breathe, they make the time for a quiet evening of togetherness.  Something tells me that these kids will not suffer much of the teenage angst of their peers.  Kudos to my son and daughter-in-law for getting it so right!


Today I Did Something Bad

I just came back from our local transfer station, otherwise known as the dump.  Since we don’t have trash pick-up in our town, each resident is responsible for hauling any created trash and recyclable disposables to the transfer station.  But when I threw a certain piece of paper, covered by a cardboard protective sleeve, into the dumpster, I immediately felt sick.

I threw away my father’s diploma.

My father would’ve been over 100 years old today.  He died in the early ’70s when I was 14.  Once it came into my possession, his diploma never hung on my wall and remained unseen, preserved in a cardboard carton for more than 40 years. I figured it wasn’t doing anyone any good, and my kids wouldn’t want it, so I threw it away. I didn’t even take a picture of it.

I immediately regretted it.

My father came to the United States in 1913 as a toddler.  Scared, poor, and sick of pograms, his father preceded him, spending years earning enough money to send for his wife and 3 small boys (2 girls would be born later).  They settled in Rock Island, Illinois, where my grandmother turned their home into a boarding house to help with expenses.  Even before the Depression, my father often went hungry; the ongoing malnutrition was the likely culprit behind his small stature.

His parents realized the only way out was through education.  Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable.  Each child was expected not only to study hard, but to spend several hours a day after school and on the weekends working to help make ends meet.  Mostly they worked on farms picking crops.

My father excelled.  He sailed through high school while participating in the debate club and running a Jewish youth group.  When it was time to apply for college, he had dreams of attending the University of Chicago, but had to turn down his acceptance (in itself a rarity due to Jewish quotas) because the tuition was well beyond his dream.  He instead attended a public university, Illinois University, but even then the cost of tuition required him to work his way through school.  He became a waiter for the dormitory, a job considered fit only for a low-life.  He was popular, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the captain of the university debate team, but the minute any girl he was dating found out he worked as a waiter, he was dropped like a hot potato.  Back then, people were very class conscious.  And while intellectually and through his social graces my father could keep up with the elites, his poverty remained a barrier to acceptance.

My father invited his brother Ben for a long weekend, in which IU would be playing college football against a fierce rival.  When my father took Ben to the stadium, Ben couldn’t wait to find his seat.  “Hold on there, we’re not sitting,” my father said, and handed Ben a stack of programs.  “We’ve got to sell these first.”  They made $25 each that day, a small fortune.  And just as Ben sat down, my father excused himself.  “It’s supper time at the dorm.  I’ve got to work.” He came back near the end of the game, and brought Ben the cold dorm leftovers for dinner.  It was then that my father confessed to Ben that school expenses, even with work, didn’t allow him enough for food.  When leftovers were few, he was often forced to eat the half-eaten food remaining on college students’ plates that he cleared and brought to the kitchen.  He tried not to think about it, just feeling grateful that his hunger was sated.

Not only did he make it through school, he graduated with honors, put himself through law school, and got his J.D.  He passed the bar in 2 states (yes, I threw those papers away too) as well as the US Supreme Court bar.

I looked at his diploma for a long time.  I knew I wouldn’t hang it on the wall, and it would just go back into the box and collect dust and not be of any use to anyone.  Well, I thought, I can’t get too sentimental about every item, or I’ll end up with a mountain of boxes that will mean nothing to my kids, and then when I die they’ll just throw it out anyhow. And so I put it in the paper recycling bin at the transfer station.  And when I heard the “clunk” as it hit the side of the bin, I begged my father’s forgiveness.

His legacy lives on in other, more tangible ways.  It’s just a piece of paper, after all.

So why do I feel such remorse?