I’m in my office, scanning a three-rack stack of old cassette tapes. As my finger runs down the middle column of the lower rack, there are Keith Richard’s Main Offender, T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, The Best of the Band . . . Like everything in those racks, each tape has its own story. I can remember liking “Wicked As It Seems” after I saw the video on MTV, a black-and-white montage that featured a near-elderly Keith Richards emerging from the darkness to mumble his lyrics. I can remember discovering T. Rex after seeing that iconic image of Marc Bolan, face covered and top hat on, the look that Slash was copying. I can remember buying The Band’s album as a primer to that group I’d heard about, the one that backed up Bob Dylan in the ’60s.
And I don’t want to throw them away.
Some of the hundreds of tapes in those racks don’t even play anymore. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll pop in various ones of them to find that the spools won’t budge. I try flipping it over, rewinding and fast-forwarding— nothing. I try using a pencil to loosen it up manually— nothing. Then I have to make that decision: Do I throw it away? Maybe . . .
I can remember when tapes became a thing. In the early 1980s, my brother and I used to buy new music at a record store in the open-air arcade of the now-dilapidated Normandale Mall. The albums had unusual prices, like $7.69 or $8.29, proclaimed on a bright-colored sticker attached to the plastic wrap, and singles in their paper sleeves were usually a little over a buck. But you couldn’t carry an LP and a record player with you. And then came tapes! And the Walkman.
Those racks of tapes symbolize my youth. My mother bought them for me, one by one, as she grew increasingly frustrated by the piles of music laying all over my teenage bedroom. Those disparate titles testify to my changing tastes. Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil and Megadeth’s Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying and— oh my goodness, Danzig, with their comic-book villain doomsday metal. And Anthrax’s attempt at rap, I’m the Man. I look, and then wonder what I was thinking when I was 14 and 15. Then I went classic: Steppenwolf, Hendrix, The Doors, The Band, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. That was 16 and 17. Then it hit: “alternative.” I’ve still got my required listening – Nevermind and Ten and Nothing’s Shocking and Hole’s self-titled album and everything Sonic Youth did up to Dirty and BloodSugarSexMagik and August and Everything After and a couple of REM albums – with some other oddities: The Dead Milkmen’s Smoking Banana Peels, My Life with a Thrill Kill Kult’s Kooler Than Jesus, and a couple of Taang!-era Lemonheads albums. Those document 18 and 19 and 20— later I settled down from grunge, let my goatee grow into a full beard, slowed down the tempo, and accepted my eclectic tastes: James Taylor and Widespread Panic, CSN and Neil Young, Victoria Williams and the Dead, Chris Whitley and Gordon Lightfoot.
And I don’t want to throw them away. Though I’m right now chuckling at the person I was when I put so much stock in those songs, those outdated relics need to stay where they are and continue collecting dust.
Because I’m not reconciled to all that yet. I may be forty-something, married with kids, and I may spend my time worrying about lesson plans and healthcare premiums, but I still haven’t made sense of the shit that went down when I was a teenager. Even though I question the quality of the music that those miles of tape contain, I also still question the events and the people and the attitudes that made me seek solace in those lyrics and those melodies and those sounds. I may be middle-aged, but I’m not dead.
Last week, my wife and I watched a documentary called The Minimalists, and in it two guys are promoting their get-happy-now theories by encouraging people to buy into a pared-down way of life. Both insist that, once they cut out all of the unnecessary things, all the clutter and stuff, true contentment came. Of course, they want people to buy their book – more stuff – and learn how to pare down, too. After listening to their spiel for a bit, I thought to myself, Maybe I’ll look around and throw away a few things, too. And that went pretty well, as I got rid of a whole paper-box full of books. I tossed The Milagro Beanfield War, a novel that I like better as a movie, and Why Priests?, a Gary Wills book whose argument I lost track of somewhere around Melchizedek. I also tossed most of the mass-market editions of DH Lawrence novels that I devoured in my twenties, a Walt Whitman-centered history of America, and some novels from grad school courses. But among those easy fixes were others that it wasn’t possible to part with: weathered copies Anais Nin’s diaries and Henry Miller’s two Tropics, my tattered and scribbled-upon copy of the British scavenger-hunt book Masquerade, an oral history of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers called Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You, a book about the VideoFreex, A Grove Press/Black Cat copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, and a passel of autographed poetry books.
These “minimalists,” these tiny-house freaks— what do they do about these kinds of meaningful things? I’m sorry, but my things do make me happy. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve stopped once or twice to glance at my large yellow Easy Rider poster from the Cannes Film Festival, which declares, “Un uomo e partito invano all ricerca dell America!…” I don’t even know what that means, and in twenty-five years I’ve never bothered to find out, but my high school girlfriend gave it to me at a time when I thought nothing could be cooler than riding a motorcycle across the country. Now, I think my butt would hurt by the time I reached the state line— but that poster has meaning, at least it does for me.
I agree wholeheartedly that consumer culture – our massive national habit of needlessly purchasing useless crap – constitutes a really scary and stupid trend. Though I used to spend lonely Saturdays in my twenties browsing used-book stores and leaving there with arms full of esoteric garbage that I rarely read, I’m now much more pensive about my purchases— especially since I now have a mortgage, more unsecured debt than I should have, and children who always seem to want something. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, doesn’t it, between rampant waste and obsessive austerity?
Having things isn’t so bad, but I’ve also gotten to see what becomes of all those things. As an adult, I’ve experienced the deaths of three different men who were all close to my life: my stepfather in 1999, my father in 2011, and my father-in-law last year. In all three cases, beyond the grief and the other emotions, after the funeral arrangements are made and the burial is complete, the survivors have to deal with all their stuff. The small mementos are easy – the trinkets and trifles that had some personal meaning to the man’s life – but the bulk is not. Closets full of clothes to load up and donate, and personal items to throw out: forgotten paperwork from decades past, shaving kits and toiletries, and a hodge-podge of unfashionable dishes, mismatched silverware, and scratched-up pots and pans. A few years after my father died, my stepsister brought me a box of his things, among them his high-sheen Marine Corps windbreaker. I had always thought that bright-red, puffy thing looked ridiculous on him, and after it spent a few years in my attic – out of respect – I really enjoyed throwing it in the trash.
When I go, my family will have a real task, and will probably think some of my things equally ridiculous. In our attic, I’ve got boxes of torn-out pages from old magazines like the Village Voice, Interview, and Ray Gun, Last Gasp catalogs, some of the first issues of No Depression and Oxford American, and old photographs of people they won’t know. I’ve gotten slightly less counter-culture and slightly more high-brow in middle age; now I keep torn-out pages from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Atlantic. I used to keep all of the issues, whole, but during one of those clean-outs, I talked myself into a new habit: only keeping the pages I was interested in. Though I won’t get to – I’ll be dead – I’d love to see my kids’ faces if they go through those boxes! They won’t even know which side of the page mattered.
If a person were considering one of these minimalist binges, I would recommend reading Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon first. I read that book when Doty came to Auburn University at Montgomery as a Weil Fellow in 2008, and it was the focus of his talk. Doty writes about “the adult recognition that the things of the world go on without us, that the meaning with which we invest them may not persist, may be visible to no one else, that even that which seems to us most profoundly saturated in passion and feeling may be swept away.” We love our stuff, and that’s OK, as long as we understand that it isn’t actually our stuff, not permanently.
I would also encourage a potential purge-addict to think about something that Sonia Sanchez said during her reading at the 2011 Alabama Book Festival. Sanchez flowed freely between reciting from her book and conversing with the audience for about an hour, and she told an anecdote about a shawl she once had. She had been wearing it at a reading at a college and left it on the chair, forgetting about it when she left. Sanchez told us that she lamented losing the shawl, but not too much. Years later, she had an opportunity to go back to that same college, and while there she visited the woman who had hosted the reading. When she arrived at the woman’s house, there was the shawl spread across the back of the couch, and the woman proudly explained how much she liked it and was glad to have it. Rather than demanding her possession be returned, Sanchez took a different, more poetic attitude about it: what once belonged to me as a shawl, which was given as a gift from a friend, now has a new life as a couch covering, which was left behind by a poet.
Over the years, that spirit has taken hold of me, too. Once, probably six or seven school years ago, I packed up all of the graphic t-shirts that my weight-gain had made unseemly, and I spread them out on a table for my students to take. Once, I went through my bookshelves and chose for each of my senior creative-writing students one book to give as a gift, something I thought they’d like, and explained to each why I chose that book. A few years ago, I went through my stack of vinyl albums and sent about half of them to a friend in Pensacola who actually has a record player. (That worked out well, since he sent me back a bottle of Blanton’s.)
I’ve got this office where I go and work. It’s upstairs and only has one small window, which I usually leave open. Here, I’m surrounded by those tapes, a couple hundred more CDs and vinyl albums, books and old magazines, a couple of guitars and my Fender Princeton 65, and plenty of knickknacks collected over a few decades for reasons that only I know. When I come here to write, I sit in my swivel chair at my small two-drawer writing desk, which my mother bought for me when I declared that I wanted to be a writer. It came from a Bombay & Co. store that closed years ago, and is easily the most elegant thing in this pop-culture mish-mash of a space. I have two full bookshelves up here; one was made by the grandfather I was named for, and the other was given to me by my late stepfather. Despite its low ceiling and piles of literary/musical/artistic debris, this room is mine. It’s the place where I feel most at home, because no matter which way I whirl in my swivel chair, my many memories – my things – are everywhere.