Rock Solid

Old interests don’t die so much as they become sublimated.  As a child I picked up a cheap “gem display” in a small cardboard box at a yard sale, probably for a quarter.  A couple of the samples were missing, and those that remained were tiny, but I was fascinated that rocks came in such varieties, especially since the ones I tended to find on my own were all shades of gray.  Science education wasn’t especially great in my small town, and besides, I had a massive interest in not going to Hell, so religious study took precedence over my predilections toward scientific studies.  Still, as a child and later, I read a lot about science and I never doubted that it could teach us about the natural world.  Years later I rediscovered my love of rocks.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I bought a rock hammer.  I began hounding.

One of the first truisms you learn about life is that movers don’t like heavy things.  Seems that if you are in the business of helping people move (for money, no less), you might be stoic about such matters.  But I have yet to move and not have the guys complain about all those boxes of books.  Well, the rock collection is even heavier.  I discreetly marked the boxes “heavy collection,” hoping nobody’d say “What you got in here, rocks?”  Because, well, yes.  I like rocks.  While in Wisconsin the collection grew—we lived in a house at Nashotah, and we had space.  I had a rock tumbler going in the basement.  We attended rock and gem shows.  Then we moved three times in three years.  I became embarrassed of my petrine peccadillo.

On my way out the door yesterday, I spied a fossil I’d picked up in Ithaca.  Immediately my old inclination to rocks returned.  I don’t know why I bought so many books on geology and seriously considered changing professions after my academic position fell apart.  Perhaps in a life so unstable rocks seemed solid, reliable.  Or maybe it was nostalgia for my young days when a cheap white box of neatly labeled specimens provided hours of transfixed wonder.  I still pick up interesting rocks, and even go to places where collecting is permitted.  This whole world under our feet is full of surprises and an interesting stone can send me into a reverie that is, if I’m honest, as spiritual as it is scientific.  

Capital Idea

Capitalism encourages a kind of racketeering among businesses, in my experience.  Take the case of utility companies after a move.  To date I have received well over a thousand dollars in bills for services not rendered.  These bills were from utility companies claiming that I owed them final amounts for bills that had been paid in full, on time, for over twelve years.  I should, it seems, be able to bill them for my time on the telephone setting their records straight.  The “final bill” is a racket.  And it is deployed just after a customer, formerly a “valued customer,” has entered into new financial obligations—moving is not cheap!  Most of these bills are for multiple hundreds of dollars for services, that when I used them, were generally billed at a mere fraction of that amount.

Corporations, according to the law, are people.  And like people, they are exceptionally greedy.  Just yesterday I received a bill from a heating oil company—which shall remain nameless for the moment—stating that I owed a multi-hundred dollar final balance.  I had notified them in April that we would be moving and that I had paid their final bill and no more deliveries should be made.  None were.  Fully five months later I receive a “final bill” politely reminding of an outstanding balance.  For what?  Heating oil delivered in July?  Have I suddenly switched hemispheres or is this some kind of racket?

Come to think of it, while unpacking I came across a budget book.  My accounting is pretty much in the range of horseshoes and hand-grenades—I know the regular bills and can guess how much they are likely to be.  I’ve got other things on my mind besides money.  The budget book had never been used.  Budgets, to my understanding, project a stable world.  That’s not like the capitalist world.  When we bought the budget book, some 30 years ago, could we have projected monthly expenses for the privileges of using an internet that at that time didn’t even exist?  Capitalism is creative in finding new things to make you pay for, even if they are only virtually real.  Like heating oil that was never pumped off the truck.  It’s always your word against theirs, and corporations are bullies, being bigger than regular people.  So I sit here with a blank budget book and a stack of “final bills” for things never delivered.  And I think to myself, what a crooked world.

Childhood’s End?

Writers are agents against chaos.  Those of you who read this blog frequently know that chaos has been one of my themes lately.  Moving, which is a process that takes months and months of time, is pure chaos.  Whenever I settle down to write, yet another moving-related task comes to me—this box needs to be unpacked, that gap in the fence must be mended, where did I put the toolbox?  Mundane things.  Writers like to think the world conforms, somehow, to their inner lives.  In reality, things are far more complex than that and don’t seem to be getting any easier.  Starting to learn about house ownership is something best left for the young, I suspect.  Every question (where should we put the television?) leads to a daisy-chain of other issues (but first we need to move that hutch, but it’s too heavy for either of us to lift, etc.).

In ancient times water symbolized chaos.  Before we left on vacation, the main issue was to get all boxes off the floor in the garage.  We haven’t had time to move them safely inside yet, what with planning for vacation and all, so plastic became the order of the day.  We do need, however, to get things inside eventually.  A slow process for two middle-aged people with full-time jobs, even without jet lag.  Writing feels like a luxury item, for what is most required is time—time to move things to their proper places.  Time to figure out what those proper places are.  Time to go to work again.

Had we thought this through, we might’ve used vacation this year to unpack.  We bought our plane tickets, however, before we bought the house.  This latter transaction is one of chaos embodied.  Who knew, for example, that the grass had to be cut so often?  That all roofs leak?  That chaos is constant, and not intermittent?  In biblical times, one of the signs of God’s greatness was the ability of the Almighty to hold chaos in constant check.  The waters were always lurking, looking for any opening—except when you need rain and it just won’t come.  Sitting here writing feels like the giddy irresponsibility of childhood where there’s so much to get done and so little time in which to do it.  And neighbors don’t appreciate the lawn being mowed before the sun is properly out of bed.  The renter pays a price for living with, for at least some stretches of time, chaos-free maintenance.  The home-owner quickly learns that any time left over for writing feels like being irresponsible, and a little bit divine.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.

Awakening

Waking up for the first time in our new place, I felt a strange relief.   I hadn’t realized how much you feel owned when you have a landlord.  Slipping out of the bed while it’s still dark, vague shapes that eventually resolve into unpacked boxes lurk in the shadows.  They mean me no harm.  I go downstairs.  Downstairs!  Without revealing too much personal information here, I can say that I’ve always believed in sleeping upstairs.  In our several apartments my wife and I have lived on one floor.  Going to sleep meant walking down the hall into another room.  It lacked proper transition.  When we looked at houses it took some time before I could put my finger on it—we needed a two-story house.  You go “up to bed” for a reason.

The thing about writing is that it’s an activity of habit.  Not aware of the location of light switches yet, I shuffle slowly through my own personal towers of Babel.  Find the coffee maker.  Where do I go to write?  Not wanting to wake my wife, I decide it should be downstairs.  There’s the study, with its desk.  Seems pretty obvious.  Mug in hand, with no lights on, instinct drives me back to my usual chair in the living room.  Habits are seldom planned.  They happen.  I’ve become used to writing electronically, but as I wanted badly to explain to the movers, I grew up writing on paper.  Writers are readers and there are two things you don’t throw away—books and your old writings.  Carpenters don’t ditch saws and hammers just because they’re heavy and numerous.  There’s a kind of religious devotion here.

Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back to my more abstract topics on this blog.  Religion and all that.  Right now I’m in a transition and I’m wondering that if that means I’m now officially grown up.  If so, does that mean abandoning my childhood dream of being a writer and facing the fact that all these boxes were moved in vain?  Not having food in our new place, our first day we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The locals were talking.  Their concerns?  Lawn care and propane.  Everyday things.  Clean-cut and suntanned, they can tell at a glance that I’m a stranger with my unkempt hair and prophetic beard.  Is my writing fantasy just childhood gone to seed?  No.  Books and writings are my identity.  The movers may have mixed them in with saucepans and power tools, but I know at a glance which boxes contain books.  Soon they will be in every room of this house.  That will make anywhere feel like home, even if I can’t find the lights.  

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.