Sunday, March 25, 2007

Housecleaning, Ghosts and Dreams

I got up this morning feeling pretty good. I had done my lesson plans for the week yesterday, so I didn't have my usual "Sunday and I Still Haven't Done My Stupid Lesson Plans" irritabliity.

On top of that, I'd picked up a shift last night at the restaurant. It was a busy night, and I ended up making quite a bit of dough. I felt better since what I made paid for most of what I spent on my ticket to go to Seattle during my spring break to go see my friend Andreas.

And I got to work with Phil, the person who got me into blogging, and who I always enjoy getting a chance to talk to.

I got up and made breakfast for my wife and my stepdaughter (my son is with his mother this weekend). I was supposed to meet up with my best friend Jim for brunch, but he ended up having to cancel. He had to go in to work today, a Sunday-- he does that fairly frequently since he got promoted into management where he works.

It was okay; I was pretty tired and sore from working last night, and it gave me a chance to have a leisurely breakfast, read the New York Times and catch up with my bloggers.

I ate a hearty breakfast, responded to some posts on my and other blogs, and knew that the day had come-- I needed to tackle some housecleaning.

Mao said that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Remember that line in Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" about how, since Alice and her husband Ray, who lived in an old church, had lots of room down in the church where the old pews used to be, so they figured they didn't have to take out the garbage for a long time? Well, my version of it is, if you have half a basement of a Chicago 2-flat, you don't have to make a decision on stuff-- whether to keep it or get rid of it-- for a long time.

It was time to start deciding today.

In a few weeks, my landlord is beginning a renovation of our kitchen and bathroom. We'll need to put a bunch of stuff downstairs. That means I need to get a bunch of stuff out of the downstairs.

I had moved a bunch of things when my wife Kim and her daughter moved in in the fall of 2005. Some was moved out-- to Goodwill and the garbage. But some of it just got moved downstairs. We bought ourselves some time by getting a storage unit, but the unit was eating into our budget. I moved more of my stuff-- out or around-- and we moved her things into the basement.

When I was a kid, we moved every 3 or 4 years. The reasons for the moves-- my father thinking that the next move would be the one that solved all of his problems-- is a whole other post. But every time we moved, I had to leave a lot behind-- mostly relationships-- friends. I think it's the reason I work so hard at maintaining friendships. But one of the consequences, I've come to realize, is that I hang on to things-- things that have sentimental value. And sometimes things that don't-- just something I think I might use someday.

Both of my kids are fascinated by ghosts. Both of them thought, at points, that there were ghosts in this old building (it's about 100 years old).

They were right-- there were ghosts. That's really why I had put off going through the stuff in the basement.

I quickly filled my truck up with stuff that is going to Goodwill tomorrow. Some of it was bathtub toys. My son has always loved water. I used to have to drag him out of the tub after a couple of hours. He had more bathtub toys than a lot of kids had toys. Since he no longer takes two hour baths, those were the first to go.

I realized today that since we were so poor when he was a baby, I had overcompensated. He had a lot of damned toys. I didn't throw money at him, but since he was such a nice child-- he was the kid everybody wanted their kid playing with-- despite the hellish times we had during my custody fight with his mother, that I had a tough time saying "no" when it came to getting things.

Loading up the boxes with old bath toys, I had a lot of smiles. And I realized that some other small child was going to have a good time with them, and some other parent-- probably one who was struggling financially like I'd been-- was going to have good memories of their kid playing with those toys.

As I plowed through the objects in the basement, one of the things, one of the objects that I realized that I was going to have to deal with was the old Epson scanner that I'd bought from my friend Mark back around the time my son was born.

Mark had been the person who'd gotten me to get on the internet. He got me jobs when I needed them. He helped me learn web design and how to use Photoshop and Quark; he'd given me lodging when I was finishing grad school, and when I'd had marital problems; and helped me get my 'zine out back in the '90's. He'd also just been a stand-up guy in my life. I don't think it's a secret to anyone who reads my blog, or anybody in my life, that his murder last June was devastating to me.

I'd bought the scanner from Mark for $500, in 1995-- believe it or not, a bargain back then. The thing weighs about twenty pounds and has an old SCSI connection. I've read that some graphic designers actually seek out the old scanners, which supposedly are better than the new ones. That may be the case. I put it on Craigslist as a freebie today. If someone wants to pick it up, it's free. If not, it'll go to Goodwill. I'm finally ready to let go of it.

Another ghost I came across was a box of photos of my ex-wife Cynthia and I that Cynthia had framed when we were married (1999-2003). I'd been meaning for ages to take the pictures out of the frames and put the pictures in the box of old photos I have. I dragged them upstairs and had them laying on the kitchen counter. My wife came home from her errands before I'd had a chance to finish that task. She commented on how pretty Cynthia was, and as I got around to pulling the pictures out of the frames, I realized that she was right. She was also a pretty damned nice, intelligent and funny person. I had been so wrapped up in all the other drama in my life, I hadn't had much of a chance to notice.

A few months back, I contacted her to update her about developments in Mark's case. She sent me pictures of her husband and her daughter, and I realized that I'd made the right decision to end the marriage, so that she could have the things she wanted in her life-- to own a house, to have a child of her own and have a husband who wasn't busy dealing with a bunch of crises outside of the marriage.

Cynthia and I had been friends before we were a couple and before we were married. When we divorced, I realized that we were not going to be friends afterward. I was giving up a lot.

I was ready to let go of that.

Tom Robbins, in his book "Still Life With Woodpecker," my favorite book, makes the point that objects have the magic that we give them.

When I had filled up my truck and had gotten a bunch of stuff together for the next load for Goodwill, I took advantage of the beautiful Chicago day to clean off the back porch-- and to give Elvis and his pedestal their Spring cleaning.

How Elvis came to be in my possession is for another blog post.

My last task for the day, before I retired to my back porch with a glass of red wine and my laptop was to put up the painting I'd bought my wife for Christmas. We'd had it sitting up away from possible cat damage in our bedroom. Another plus of where we were keeping it was that we'd come to love how it looked when the sun shone behind it. But it had to go up on the wall eventually, and this evening I grabbed my hammer and the hardware for hanging it, and put it up.

Looking at this picture of her and her painting, I was reminded of what a pretty, intelligent, nice and funny person she is. Good thing I married her, and good thing that this time I am able to notice those things in the person I'm married to.

I'd put off my housecleaning because I knew it was going to stir up some ghosts-- my friend who I've grieved so much for, a failed marriage, the teaching career I'm walking away from (I finally plowed through a bunch of old books and teaching aids) and the fact that my son is growing up. I'm glad I got the housecleaning-- the physical and metaphysical-- started today.

There are some other ghosts I'm actually looking for. I'm still trying to find my old friend Yomi Martin, a guy I worked with in the restaurant business who was one of the most talented, brightest and most driven people I've ever met. He and some friends published a comic book when they were all around 21 years old. I'm at my wit's end trying to track him down.

Thursday evening, another ghost appeared. My old friend and high school Chemistry lab partner, Lois Kaltenbach, came into the restaurant with her teenage daughters. I hadn't seen her in some time-- at least a year. We had a couple of good laughs. Her youngest daughter and my son are about the age we were-- 13 or 14-- when we met at McClure Junior High School in Western Springs back when the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's presidency were ending.

Lois was one of the few people in Western Springs, a place I hated, to treat me decently. We were two fish out of water-- I was to find out later that we'd actually both grown up on the north side of Chicago before our parents moved us to that godawful suburb. And we'd both ended up moving back to the place we felt we belonged, the north side of Chicago. This is the place we chose to raise our children, not Western Springs, the affluent suburb we'd both hated.

It's weird how when seeing an old friend, you tend to see them as they were when you met them. Lois and I are looking around the corner at 50 these days. We're now at an age where if you haven't done the things in life you want to do, you've got to either do them, start making serious plans to do them or leave those dreams behind.

I've mentioned before a list I have about life goals. I got the idea from an article I read a couple of years ago in the New York Times. One of the goals I have is to spend more time playing guitar (despite the fact that I am a not-even-quite-mediocre guitarist). To that end, in addition to blogging when I went on my back porch tonight, I spent some time playing guitar. I finally looked up the chords for one of my old favorite songs, "Dreams," by the Allman Brothers Band.

It's a song about taking an ass-whipping in life, but going off to the mountain top-- a metaphorical or literal one-- and coming back determined to "get back in the race." It's a song that brought me comfort in the months after my friend's death. I was thrilled to finally play the song, one I'd loved since I was a teenager, finally.

After playing it, I had the urge to hear the song. I pulled it up on my itunes and listened to it while I blogged.

Of course, the Allman Brothers continued to speak to me. The next song was "Ain't Wasting Time No More," another old favorite.

It's almost a companion song to Dreams. It's about how it's okay to realize that you've run up some wrong roads, and that as long as your realize it, learn from your mistakes, embrace the good things that even a journey down a wrong road can bring you and start down the right roads, everything's okay.

I'll bet you guys never realized how smart the Allman Brothers Band was.

Ain't Wasting Time No More

Last Sunday morning
The sunshine felt like rain
Week before
They all seemed the same
With the help of God and true friends
I come to realize
I still had two strong legs
And even wings to fly
And oh I, ain't wastin time no more
'Cause time goes by like hurricanes
And faster things
Lord, lord Miss Sally
Why all your cryin'?
Been around here three long days
You're lookin' like you're dyin'
Just step yourself outside
And look up at the stars above
Go on downtown baby
Find somebody to love
Meanwhile I ain't wastin' time no more
'Cause time goes by like pouring rain
And much faster things
You don't need no gypsy to tell you why
You can't let one precious day slip by
Look inside yourself
And if you don't see what you want
Maybe sometimes then you don't
But leave your mind alone and just get high
Well by and by
Way after many years have gone
And all the war freaks die off
Leavin' us alone
We'll raise our children
In the peaceful way we can
It's up to you and me brother
To try and try again
Well, hear us now, we ain't wastin' time no more
'Cause time goes by like hurricanes
Runnin' after subway trains
Don't forget the pouring rain


Mob said...

That was another beautiful post sir, and I hope you consider a memoir someday. I can understand where you're coming from when talking about putting off dealing with things like photographs and relics from the past, I have a box of pictures from a failed relationship that I always push further back into the closet, because my first instinct is to toss them, because it reminds me of a bad time in my life, but then again, who am I to re-write history, that was a part of what made me who I am today, right?

And I do a lot of thinking about how happy I am with this marriage, and what I could have settled for had I made the wrong decisions in the past, and it makes me all the more grateful for the person I'm with.

Flannery Alden said...

You totally should write a memoir.

kim said...

God, and to think that was just one box. I think you should save yourself the ghosts and just have Salvation Army come and haul it all out.

Nice post though. That breakfast was delicious.

GETkristiLOVE said...

The thing about facing ghosts of your past is you also have to face the ghost of who you were at a different time. I think that is important to note, but not dwell on, and then continue to move on in life.

Skylers Dad said...

Amazing story, thank you much for sharing.

Anon. Blogger said...

What a wonderful Sunday! You really have to be in the right frame of mind to clean out, don't you?

I have always found getting rid of children's clothes and toys the hardest. We still have baby toys around that I say are for people that visit with babies....

No babies come here! Who am I kidding?

I have a box of baby clothes that are the ones that all three wore... they are very well used, and seeing them makes me melancholy, yet I love to look at them and remember holding the babies that were in them. I think it will be their job to get rid of them some day when I'm gone!

The painting and Kim are both very beautiful - and so was this post!

Awesome title!!

Grant Miller said...

Lovely story. Really.

Western Springs is dead to me, also.

Danielle said...

That was a big job to tackle in more ways than one. I often don't have the time to sort through my stuff but when I do I am always swept away into the past. Clearing space for the new things in life is necessary for growth. I am a new reader but have you favorited on my computer and will be returning.

Job well done, sir.

Bubs said...

That was truly a wonderful, wonderful post. I don't think I've seen anyone express, so well, our relationship to our "stuff", and the often-heavy symbolic meaning that stuff takes on over the years. MizBubs and I have some similar cleaning to do in our basement and garage, and every time you start a project like that it means coming to terms with everything you've ever started and not finished, or put off starting in the first place.

I love the picture of breakfast, and I especially love the picture of your bride standing with her painting.

Well done.

busterp said...

Agreed. Good post. From Alice to scanners, toys, pictures, Allman Bros., it read well.

That housecleaning will get you. I'll be enjoying a leisurely Sunday watching TV when the colorful afternoon sun breaks through a window, drawing attention to a layer of dust on some piece of furniture.

Or better still, a layer over the front of the TV. A claritin clear moment.

When it's bad enough, you know you got to attack it.

Danny Tagalog said...

Hi Meester Yen,

Yes, a very very interesting post and I know that Sunday morning you talked about at the start. Is that why you are walking away?


Natalie said...

What a wonderful post. Cleaning always gets the memories flowing. that is maybe whay I have such a messy house. I used to love bath toys. They were good when I would get sent to the bathroom for punishment since I had too much fun in my own room.

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks. It's amazing how objects can have such gravity.

I remember you blogging about that relationship. And you're right-- it's all part of us-- even our pain. The fact that you've been able to take what happened and use it to improve your current relationship shows that.

I would, but it's not me who's interesting-- it's the people around me. Maybe I'll write their memoirs.

I'm glad you enjoyed the breakfast. Pretty funny that I can't eat any of it.

I agree. Sometimes, in thinking about the past I say to myself, "Who the hell was that guy?"

Skyler's Dad-

Anon. Blogger-
I chose just a couple of little things to save: a pacifier (he was very persnickety about which kind he liked), a tiny baby shoe and a bib.

I finally got rid of a bunch of bigger stuff-- strollers, etc. a few years back. I realized that I was not having any more kids-- this was a huge factor in the break-up with Cynthia-- and that someone else could be using these things.

They are beautiful, aren't they?


RE Western Springs-- so you've had the pleasure as well? I fucking hate that place.

Welcome to Casa de Yen!

That's the key-- clearing stuff both physically and emotionally so you can move forward.

That was so well-put!

Our stuff can have a lot of meanings. I can't remember who said it-- that our things own us. Sometimes things enhance our lives, and sometimes they drag us down. I think of people who own expensive cars, watches, etc. and live in fear of them being stolen, damaged or lost.

RE Kim and the painting-- she is a dish, isn't she? We're a couple of lucky men, to be married to beauties.

I have a philosphy on breakfast-- if you have a great breakfast, even if the rest of your day is shitty, at least it began nicely.

Yep, sometimes, you just know it.

It is indeed!


That's very funny about your parents inadvertenly rewarding you for bad behavior.

When my son was little, when my ex or I would scold him, he'd run and put himself in the corner. It was all we could do to keep from cracking up laughing as we we scolding him.