Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Parable of the Post-It Tags

Disposing of gently-used stuff, things that are “still perfectly good” in the Midwestern parlance with which we grew up, has always been hard for me.

We still have some of the leftovers from Ernie’s house that we closed more than two years ago, because I cannot bear to throw away things that are “still perfectly good” but for which we haven’t yet found welcoming homes. There’s a couch in the basement that Michael and I squabbled over for years: he’d had it at his first house, a hand-me-down from his grandmother, and then we’d slip-covered it (using a housewarming gift from his parents) and used it as our main piece of furniture in today’s home until we started being able to buy furniture some years into the mortgage on this house. Almost thirty years ago. Michael always wanted to burn it, but to me, it was a quality piece of furniture that was still perfectly good. We arrived at a nice resolution of this difference of opinion when, even more years later, we finished an area in our basement as storm shelter and moved the couch there. We’re both happy with this outcome. Michael never has to look at it unless there’s a tornado in the area, in which case he’s happy to have a comfortable (if shabby) place to sit. I know that we found a reuse for a perfectly good, sturdy, well-made piece of family history.

We’ve had clothes hanging in the attic for years that we’ll never wear again that I cannot quite bear to dispose of, even understanding how silly that is. Not only am I not ever going to wear any of them ever again, they’re not even likely to be seen as interesting vintage to anyone. Yet there they hang, in part because we have the luxury of a big attic, so I never have to face up to this shortcoming and overcome whatever it is that keeps me from shedding them. “Oh, I was wearing this in that picture taken at the last visit with my grandmother!” “I loved wearing this so much.” “This will just take too much time to go through: let’s forget this and turn to another area of the attic on which we can make real progress in the next hour.” I’ve said all these things and more that really all amount to the same reluctance to dispose of “still perfectly good” stuff.

This all came to the forefront yesterday morning while reading the paper. We mail Kearney interesting articles, a habit we’ve had since she first went to summer camp decades ago and have somehow never given up. (Is this related to the above?) I had a package of post-it tags I’d discovered in cleaning out a closet. Of course, it was a completely full package because I’d always put it back for “later,” not wanting to use it up. This is related, I know, to not wanting to throw away “still perfectly good” stuff, just at the other end of the spectrum. (“That’s too nice to use.”) In any event, I’d conserved these tags for so long that they’ve lost virtually all of their stickiness. Score another one for the dumb saving instinct.

Where does this come from and how does it get overcome? The instinct is bound to be neurotic in origin. I’m short these days on sheer will, applying most of that to getting done what needs to be done on a daily basis, and besides, it didn’t seem in long supply even when I wasn’t in the midst of Part Six—The Long Slog, as we’ve come to think about this stage of the recovery. At work, I’ve usually been partnered with vigorous pitchers-of-paper and non-savers, so our instincts have nicely balanced at “just right” for our records. Dedicated readers know that no one in my family is a big help, as Michael and Shea, in particular, don’t even always throw away discarded plastic wrappings without reminders.

Kearney’s “another later” seems like the answer today. Someday, though, we’re going to have to confront this warped saving instinct and start getting rid of even perfectly good stuff if it’s never going to be used again by us.

Michael says this post is more scattered than usual. Guilty as charged: the vertigo from the weekend has hung on, putting a damper on the week and fuzzing my thinking. Between that and Michael’s bout with the current local bug, we’re in slo-mo. On a grey winter day, that’s not a bad place to be. Send sunshine!


  1. Here's a different view of the problem.

    You used the old couch "until we started being able to buy furniture some years into the mortgage". Then you replaced it, even though “still perfectly good”.

    Where did the imperative come from to buy new furniture just because you could?

    "But, but...the old couch was *shabby*!"

    There, I submit, is the neurotic part.

  2. Tina's description of "perfectly good" is far too charitable. This couch is solid in the sense of being heavy, but horse hair cushions are NOT comfortable, especially over an uneven set of springs.

  3. Delete the couch as an example. All I mean to say is that I conceive it to be a mistake to regard ruefully as a character flaw one's reluctance to throw away good stuff. It is instead altogether wholesome and virtuous, and needs only to be coupled with a matching reluctance to accumulate new stuff. It is the dominant American impulse to toss anything not of immediate usefulness into the dumpster that we all need to regret.

  4. I should add that I sympathize with the conundrum posed by the current stored items, not all of which came into your care as a result of your own initiative. It takes time, effort, and thought to dispose of things responsibly, and we're all short on those, the Walker/Gunsalus household especially so at the moment.

  5. This post made me remember the summer I was 14 or 15, visiting with my dear, sweet maternal grandmother in Blue Jay, WV (yes, this is a real place, but has always seemed a little lost in time to me). I went into the attic to poke around, since my grandfather had just completed enclosing the back porch and had built a set of stairs up to the attic (which previously had only been accessible via a ladder up through a covered opening in the hallway ceiling of their nearly 100 year old house). Up in that attic I found all kinds of boxes and racks of clothes--I'm guessing my grandmother, at least up until then, had never thrown out any out-grown, out-of-style clothing. This was no doubt a byproduct of having raised 9 children through the later years of the depression and WWII.

    The real find, however, was on a rack of formal gowns from the 1950s, when my mother would have been a teenager, not too much older than I was when I found the glorious, frothy, lace-and-netting, whale-bone bodiced, gowns from her 4 years on what was then called "May Court." I tried them on in turn--the pink, the yellow, the pale blue, the white. The shock was that they were very tight, even on my too-slim frame; I can't imagine how uncomfortable they would have been to actually wear and dance in, wearing high heeled pumps no doubt.

    Anyway, I'm sure those dresses long ago disappeared--once there were stairs into that attic, getting rid of things that were "perfectly good" but of no earthly use to my grandparents became a possibility, and with her passing last January (my grandfather has been gone more than a decade) I'm certain the attic has now been emptied entirely.

    My kids will never have such an experience. My parents have been more upwardly mobile than their own, which was a good thing in many ways for us kids, but means that there are no decades-old collections in 100-year-old attics to pillage. Nor do I live a life that allows for such accumulation--our house is modest by 21st century McMansion standards and there is only such much storage, and like Tina's Michael, my sweeter half is not the pack rat I tend to be, so every couple of years, at least, we go on a "purge" of things unused and unneeded (I've learned to hide the cooking and knitting magazines).

    Anyway, this comment is much too long, but thanks for triggering a sweet memory for me.