Thursday, June 28, 2007

Your Possessions Own You



As I've mentioned before, Tuesday's rainstorm here in Chicago put about a foot and a half of water in our basement.

It cleared out pretty quickly and I was able to go down and assess the damage pretty soon after the rain ended. The damage was miraculously light, considering that I had to tip the dryer over and empty water out of it.



The basement has flooded in the past, so I have nearly everything down there in big Rubbermaid bins. Still, there were a few things I was worried about-- my two electric guitars and my Blood Feast poster.

I cleared out some stuff and got to the guitars. They were in the back of the basement (which is the front of the house), where the water was only 4 or 5 inches deep. They were up on guitar stands, so only a couple of inches were wet. I rinsed the bottoms of the guitars off and set them up to dry.

I had to move some stuff to get to the poster. I'd put it downstairs at Kim's request when she and her daughter moved in here, until my stepdaughter was older-- the poster is pretty gory.

Blood Feast, the subject of the poster, was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, and is a classic. The poster was a gift, along with 3 other B-Movie posters from someone over 20 years ago. I had them framed about 16 or 17 years ago. I'm not hung up on material things-- I drive a 13 year old truck, and dress in jeans and t-shirts most of the time. But I do love cool kitschy things, and these are the coolest, kitschiest things I have.

When I put the poster downstairs, I thought I had waterproofed it. I was wrong.

I got it out and saw that the corners of the frame had made small tears in the plastic bags I'd wrapped it in. The bottom 8 or 9 inches of the poster were wet.

I was not happy. I took the poster out of the frame and remembered something.

In 1986, while the Chicago Historical society was undergoing construction for adding to the building when a water main was damaged, causing massive flooding, inundating areas in which historical papers were stored. I remembered reading an article in the Chicago Reader about it-- that it was not water that damaged papers per se, but the mold that attacked the paper quickly after it got wet. If the paper can be dried quickly, the damage is minimal.

I grabbed Kim's hair dryer and went to work. Once the poster was dry, my sense of panic subsided.



The bottom of the poster is wrinkled, but it can be steamed and put on a new board.

After saving the poster, I went downstairs and was amazed at how lucky I was. I salvaged a baby picture of my great-grandmother. Other than that, most everything that got wet was something I didn't mind getting rid of.

One of the things I was most glad was safe was something I'd coincidentally put up on a shelf a week or so ago. It was a Czechoslovakian political poster my late friend Mark had brought back for me on his 1991 trip to Europe; it was from the first free elections Czechoslovakia had after the Berlin Wall came down. He knew I was a political junkie and that it was something I'd treasure as a piece of history. And of course I now also treasure it as a memory of him. I'd taken it down last year when I was painting and hadn't yet hung it back up.



As I cleaned stuff out and up, I got to thinking about our possessions.

When Kim and I met 2 1/2 years ago, one of the things we discovered was a shared love of kitsch, and particularly Airstream Trailers. We decided long ago that one of our goals was to eventually live in an Airstream, travelling around, living light.

Over the last couple of years, then, I've tried to get rid of "stuff." Material things. My target is to whittle down my stuff over the next 20 years or so to where I can fit it in an Airstream. Hell-- I'm even getting rid of my vinyl (don't worry TenS-- all the vinyl was safe in plastic bins, and you still have first dibs on it!).

It made me think about my relationship with my material possessions. And frankly, it made me think of New Orleans, and how it must have been for people after the flood there.

It made me think about what is important, and what I can and cannot live without.

They say that your possessions own you. I laugh when I see a yuppie slow down to creep his $45,000 SUV over a one inch bump in the road. Yet I had a basement filled with stuff I felt I couldn't get rid of-- until it got waterlogged. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Bubs had a great post recently about letting go of a canoe he'd been working on. He'd made plans to refurbish it, but at some point realized that it was, realistically, never going to happen. He found someone who not only had an appreciation of the uniqueness of the canoe frame, but also had the time and inclination to renovate it, and sold it to him. Sometimes it's liberating to divest ourselves of things.

We gather our things and make our plans. But, to quote the old proverb: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Nature, fate, chance-- they all conspire to rearrange and even trash our plans.

I remembered my old roommate Chris, when I lived in the Edgewater neighborhood 20 years ago, ribbing me about how few material possessions I had, and kidding me that someday I'd start accumulating them. I laughed at what he said-- I lived light in those days. I could move in one car trip.

I've lived in this apartment nearly 9 years-- longer than I've ever lived anywhere in my life. This is the fourth time the basement has flooded. Each time, I've had to divest myself of possessions. And each time, I've been amazed at how little I missed the things I lost. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.

17 comments:

The Elk said...

You didn't happen to find my inflatable camping mattress or Jimmy Hoffa down there anywhere did you?

lulu said...

I'm in the process of sorting through everything I own right now. I'm a total packrat, and boy am I regreting it now, Why did I want to save all this stuff? Now I just have to get rid of it.

'Bubbles' said...

Oh, JY! I so understand!

My thoughts are blog material for a week, I think. I've been a slave to things, and sometimes still am.

My mom, who moved a gazillion times with a family of five, had a couple of sayings. My favorite: "Three moves are as good as a fire." Second favorite (probably not hers, I realize), "Out of sight, out of mind."

Mom was one hell of a wise woman.

:-)

Congrats on saving the poster!!

JR's Thumbprints said...

My wife's cousin lives in Chicago. She told us about the massive downpour. Hope everything works out for you and you're able to travel the country side in one of those Airstreams in the near future.

SamuraiFrog said...

I've been lucky enough never to live in a home that's flooded. I remember back in '93, when it rained so hard that everything flooded, helping a friend get things off the floor of her basement. The water down there was up to my knees; I had to roll my jeans up as far as I possibly could.

I know what you mean about stuff. I have a LOT of stuff, I collect things, but I think there's a lot of things I could live without. I go through divestment periods. It makes some people weep to hear it, but I simply threw away two-thirds of the comic books I had collected over the course of my life. I didn't want them anymore, and no one wanted to buy them (too recent), so I simply threw them away. I haven't missed them once.

Generally, a good rule is to put something in its own garbage bag and leave it somewhere for a month. If you haven't looked at it in 30 days, you probably never will and it's okay to give to someone else. I thought I'd never want to get rid of some of my things, but it feels good sometimes, doesn't it?

kim said...

Is it really going to take 20 years to whittle down? I was hoping you would be done by Sunday.

I've got two people we know getting me numbers to get that poster steamed...don't worry, Blood Feast will be restored...

Johnny Yen said...

Elk-
I did find the mattress. No luck on Jimmy Hoffa, though.

Lulu-
Isn't it amazing? I hauled at least 10 truckloads of stuff to Goodwill in the last year and a half, and I've missed none of it. I came to the realization with a lot of the stuff that if I wanted it in the future, I could run to Goodwill and buy it for 50 cents or a buck at Goodwill.

"Bubbles"-
I think that my family's frequent moves were part of why I hung on to material things. My mother and I were talking recently, and she realized that she and my father had moved over 20 times in their nearly-47 year marriage. Seven of those times were before I was in high school. Each time, I had to leave friends behind, and the final move was to Western Springs-- a place I wasn't too fond of.

JR-
We have to wait until we own a house, ironically, to get the Airstream-- the plan is to buy a used one and customize it.

Kim-
Thank you!

Sunday may be a little optimistic-- give me until Tuesday.

Splotchy said...

A couple years ago, I went down with Bubs to help gut houses in New Orleans in St. Bernard's Parish.

We did about 3 and a half houses while we were down there for the week. It takes time carting out furniture, appliances, tearing down drywall, ripping up carpet, etc.

I remember one of the houses where a family room had furniture all warped and broken, sticking out in odd directions.

In that house I really focused as one of my tasks to gather any salvageable belongings for the house's owner (who would stop in on a break from her workday from time to time, giving words of encouragement and chatting).

I found some mostly-damaged photo albums, some other trinkets. All told the amount of her possessions I was able to save could fit in a 1 foot square area.

It was a pretty emotional experience.

deadspot said...

Man plans and God laughs.

...because God is kind of a dick.

Alasdair said...

I, too, value my portability. And yet now that we have a house, our stuff is breeding. I clear it out, it comes back. I clear it out, it comes back. And it's not like I'm buying things, either. What the hell is happening? Maybe your stuff is actually vanishing from Goodwill and reappearing in my basement.

MacGuffin said...

Well, I for one, am a collector but I don't let my possesions own me yadda yadda. Once you get past the bare neccessities in life then all else is WANT. Even the desire for culture of any kind is a want. While I despise the uber greedy ENRON types of this world, I don't have a problem with people's desire to surround themselves with things they personally find enriching. True, the world has become topsy turvy in regards to what things should be worth, billionair's spending hundreds of millions for paintings, that kind of thing but does that mean the rest of us should devoid ourselves of MOST everything? Sorry, I'm not ready to lead a monastic life. I've had cancer twice with a bad outcome forcasted by the dr.s and my materialistically based hobbies have been a nice distraction. And I rather doubt people who lose everything (i.e. possessions) to storms, fires, etc.. feel enlightened by the process.

Johnny Yen said...

Splotchy-
I can imagine it was emotional. Having had just a little taste of it-- to lose even personal mementoes-- pictures of your kid, etc.-- that would be awful.

Deadspot-
He can be at times, can't he?

Alasdair-
It is amazing, isn't it? I go down into my basement and wonder-- where the hell did all this stuff come from?

Macguffin-
Collectors, I think, are a whole other category. You and other collectors collect things that have a value to you and others, things that are interesting-- I think you've mentioned that you collect movie posters, didn't you? You're lucky to have the space to do that. We've got four people living in a not-too-big apartment here.

The stuff that I was talking about divesting was crap-- I mean, I had stuff that I had no idea why I was keeping it. Old kitchen stuff, books I was never going to get around to reading, clothes I no longer wore, etc.

I've had to really examine my life in the last year regarding material stuff. When my friend Mark was murdered last year, we (his family and friends) spent a couple of days emptying out his house. The stuff we emptied out filled one of those industrial dumpsters. It was amazing. And I had the unsettlling thought that he may have put off moving out of his house, something he planned to do when the value went up (it already had) because of the huge amount of stuff he would have had to move. I had the uncomfortable realization that his attachment to this stuff-- stuff that ended up in a dumpster, except for the things we took, at his parents' urging-- literally cost him his life. I saw a reflection of myself in that-- I had a huge amount of stuff that would really be of no value, not even sentimental, in the end.

I put culture in the "need" category. That's actually reflected in my tattoo-- it says "Pan y Rosas Tambien," the Spanish translation for "Bread and Roses Too", which was a slogan of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. The idea was that we are entitled not only to our material needs, but beauty and culture too.

MacGuffin said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your friend Mark. I had a similar experience when my brother, Brian, committed suicide a few years ago. After some time, we had to go through all of his stuff and it was an unbelievably painfull process. We tried our best to find new homes for all of his belongings but in the end, some of it was "trashed" something to this day, I feel tremendously bad about. Sorry, I misunderstood the point of your post apparently. I've always felt one should have food for the soul as well as the body. Without the former, the latter suffers and vice versa. As for space, yeah we have plenty of that in West Texas but very, very little in regards to culture, trees, things like that. That's probably why I've personally put a premium on surrounding myself with things like African art, film posters, etc.. because for familial reasons, I can't leave this desolate place. Believe me, living in "W's" backyard sucks culturally!

GETkristiLOVE said...

I'll be moving soon. I'm looking forward to "slimming down" on my stuff but also anxious about it because the decision process will be hard sometimes for what to keep.

Johnny Yen said...

Macguffin-
I'm terribly sorry to hear about your brother.

I had a friend-- his name was also Mark-- who committed suicide about ten years ago. I was devastated. He had become addicted to heroin, unbeknowest to me. His girlfriend, who'd been trying to pry him away from his "drug friends," had finally had it, and told him to choose between her and the drugs. Unfortunately he chose to take his life, instead. I wish I'd known more-- his girlfriend had asked me to spend more time with him-- she considered me a good influence on him. I had tried to do that, but if I'd known how dire the situation was, I would have tried a lot harder.

When the other Mark died, going through his stuff, like with your brother, was the most difficult thing I've done in my life. I posted about it last year. When I came across a gag gift I'd given him years before-- of all things, a pair of Beavis and Butthead boxer shorts-- I nearly lost it. I pray that I never have to do anything like that again.

I very much agree with you on surrounding yourself with things you like. Life is too short not to.

And I'm glad that there's people like you and Mob evening things out down there in Texas.

BTW, I've got a lot of roots in Texas. My paternal grandmother, Opal Bass, was the great-niece of the outlaw Sam Bass.

Kristi-
I know what you mean. When Kim and I moved in together (she moved into the place I've lived) both of us had to go through that process. I suspect that it's mitigated for you by the same thing as it was for us-- that at the end of it, you get to live with the person you love.

MacGuffin said...

That's exactly how I feel about my brother... if only I had tried harder, if only I had known.. it's a torturous thing to live with. I read the post you linked concerning your other close friend, and all I can say is that it really moved me, as trite as that sounds.

Johnny Yen said...

That's not trite at all. Mark's death was hands down the worst thing to ever happen in my life-- I'm certain that your brother Brian's death was the worst thing to ever happen to you. I'm also certain that like me, you find it difficult to convey the depth of a loss like that to other people. Mark's death is something that will color the rest of my life.

I found myself feeling similar things with Mark-- a wild gamut of emotions. I irrationally blamed myself for not being there to help him. And just as irrationally, I was angry at him-- "dammit, it was your job to do whatever it took to survive that night!"

One of the things we (friends and family) are doing is setting up a scholarship fund at the college we all met at. Our plan is to fund a $500 scholarship twice a year at our old college, to help out struggling art students. The idea that twice a year, some young kid from central Illinois will be able to stay in school or buy art supplies, etc. and will think of Mark is a nice thought.