A Twinkle in the Eye: Remembering Dad

As a Father’s Day tribute, here’s what I said about him at his memorial service in February 2009…

dad pic from photo

After reflecting on remembrances of my dad that I wanted to share with you, several themes emerged, some expected, some surprising — cars, trains, Pennsylvania, being there, rootedness, modesty, and a twinkle in the eye.

Modesty was a surprisingly strong theme. My dad wasn’t a self-effacing person, but I don’t remember him ever bragging or calling attention to himself. He did many things in his own modest way.

He was a modest socializer. During his parental life at least, his socializing consisted of visiting close friends and family, vacationing with Mom’s relatives, and avoiding non-family social gatherings like the plague. But he had a knack for starting up a conversation. Once about 12 years ago we were vacationing in Avalon, NJ. My sister Candie and I asked my parents repeatedly what they wanted to do while they were there — visit the local gardens, go to the beach, do something? ‘Nothing — we’re fine just being here.’ So my sister and I went off visiting and swimming and all; when we came back at the end of the day I asked Dad how his day was. He started talking about a doctor he met from Philadelphia and about this guy’s life and family and — “Dad”, I interrupted him — “you haven’t gone anywhere all day; how did you meet a doctor from Philly?” It turned out that he sat on the front steps of the beach house on Dune Drive, greeting people as they walked by, striking up conversations; and apparently, this actually works — at least it did for him.

He was a modest rebel. One of the modestly rebellious things my dad did on more than one occasion was to take the family out for a Sunday drive — on a road which hadn’t been opened yet. So, for example, we were surely one of the first families, if not the first, to travel down PA 283, the “new” road between Highspire and Lancaster. I still remember the ride — going right around the “Road Closed” barriers, driving down this brand new four-lane road all by ourselves, my mom pleading “Jack! Slow down! What if the bridges aren’t done yet?” That prospect added even more excitement to the ride, but dad worked for PennDOT, so he knew that the road construction was complete — I think.

He was a modest pioneer. The progenitor of the Sener family in America, Gottlieb Soehner, got off the boat in Philadelphia in 1749, and promptly took part in that great American tradition of the westward migration. It’s just taken our family a little bit longer. To my knowledge, it took our branch of the Seners over 200 years to migrate across the Susquehanna River, thanks to my dad who settled our family on the West Shore just outside of Camp Hill around 1952. Then there was the Great Move of 1967 when we migrated an additional three miles westward to Good Hope Farms, where he spent almost all of his remaining 41 years. By my calculations, if our branch of the Sener family had continued migrating westward at this pace, we would not have reached Pittsburgh until the year 2859. But then again, this was a man who thought the idea of my going to college in Ohio was positively exotic.

HO train and map pic

Of course, this all makes sense because my dad was a Pennsylvanian through and through. Most of the childhood memories which have come to back to mind over the past several days — playing in Little League games, getting Dum Dum lollipops at the barber shop on Railroad Street in Shiremanstown, riding the modest rides at Willow Mill and Williams Grove amusement parks, watching Bears hockey or high school basketball playoff games at the old Hershey arena, buying toys at EJ Korvette’s and the Middletown Merchandise Mart and Joe the Motorists’ Friend, which despite its name sold cool toys — are of things he enabled to happen at places close to home, well within the state borders, and long gone or no longer used.

Even more important to him than sense of place was a sense of rootedness. His home was meant to be a place where family and possessions could gather, relate, endure. One of our cherished family traditions perfectly embodies this: the Christmas tree platform. Under the tree were Lionel HO gauge tracks and trains and the timeless village of Plasticville; later came the Model Motoring race cars. One year we got really elaborate and set up three conjoined platforms in the basement with trains, village, race cars, and a slot car track. In other words, vehicles that make their journeys without ever leaving the comfort of your home, and that stay on track, mostly — although we reliably got yelled at when we tried to crash the trains or cars on purpose. And, of course, trains, village, race cars, slot cars, and many of those toys bought when we were kids are still down in the basement of his house — gathered along with countless other objects of relative enduring importance.

I could go on, but perhaps you’ve guessed what I’m really up to here. Because what I remember first and foremost about my dad is his love of telling stories. I hope that the stories I’ve just told echo his love for telling stories, and perhaps they help you remember him fondly through stories he told to you over the years.

Storytelling was perhaps his favorite way of communicating. His stories were characterized by understated humor and never-stated but common themes: the everyday absurdities of working for the state; what people were doing now — neighbors, former neighbors, people you grew up with but had forgotten about, people you didn’t know at all; highlights of trips he clearly enjoyed after having groused about taking them right up to the day of departure. But he didn’t tell stories to convey life lessons or important information, or to persuade, or even to entertain. For him, telling stories was a means of personal connection, of being there, of being rooted in a way he enjoyed. So at some point in his telling a story, usually related to a twist of plot or humor, you could reliably count on seeing a twinkle in his eye.

The day before he died, I talked with him on the phone. To be perfectly honest, the conversation did not make a whole lot of sense at the time; he told a story which involved a store where they displayed and sold model trains, the prospect of franchising that store nationally and making a healthy profit from it, and a boy who got a green lollipop. My sister Patty told me later that he was animated and lucid for an hour or two afterward. I suspect a twinkle in the eye was involved as well.

Thanks, Dad, for all the rides, for being there, for embodying the value of rootedness and the gentle gifts of modest pursuits, and for the twinkle in your eye.

Collecting without a Purpose #2: The Color Chest Story

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Sure, it’s organized. But why do I still have all those Christmas cards I’ll never send…empty flashlights…floppy disks?

The Color Chest Story

My parents’ possessions were often assembled in collections without a purpose. The bins in my father’s bedroom were examples of this: random objects thrown together in a container for no apparent reason. One bin, for example, had a hat. And a rock. And an expired pizza coupon. And a plastic bag filled with old candy wrappers. (I have no idea why he collected candy wrappers, nor why he put them in plastic bags.) And other assorted useless objects and — oh, look, here’s my son’s birth announcement. My other family members are unsure about another recollection, but I thought we also found an uncashed check for $22,000 in one of these bins. Each bin was a collection without apparent purpose or organization.

Even weirder, though, was when we encountered collections of objects in their house which were clearly organized around some principle but with no apparent reason for that organization. Perhaps the most memorable example was what I came to call the color chest, an old piece of furniture in the basement. This gray-painted chest was originally a bedroom dresser, but when we opened its drawers during the house clearing process, we were astonished to discover how it had been re-purposed: as a place for storing old toys and other objects, all sorted by color. There was a drawer filled with nothing but red toys and other assorted red objects. There was a drawer filled with blue toys and objects, and one filled with pink ones, and another with green ones, and another with black ones. None of the objects in each drawer related to any of the other objects in that drawer, except by chance (for instance, two plastic cars or dinosaurs from the same set that happened to be the same color). Some of the objects were broken or had missing pieces; a few of the objects had no discernible purpose at all. The color chest was one of many examples we encountered, along with the pennies wrapped in rolls, organized by year, and scattered throughout the house, or the barrels of scrap wood and scrap metal and scrap window parts, of stuff that was “organized,” but not in a very useful way — organization without a purpose.

I didn’t have anything quite so weird as a color chest in my store of possessions — or at least I didn’t think so. But I did find myself wondering at times if I too had collections without a purpose. What was the point of keeping all those gardening supplies in the shed if I never did any gardening? Why have a collection of board games if no one ever played them? And what about so many of those other nests with their somewhat random combination of things together in one place, like the cart pictured above?

Having these thoughts made me feel uneasy about my own tendencies to hold on to things.  As the Lonely Planet describes it, “If America was a quirky grandfather, the Smithsonian Institution would be his attic.” Both my parents’ and my own collections of things made me feel as if I was on the way to becoming a ‘quirky grandfather,’ or worse. Collecting, purging, and organizing were useful but also toxic beyond a certain point: when collecting became grasping, when purging was a reaction to being overwhelmed, when organizing served no rational purpose; if not a disease, then certainly a dis-ease. However, the 1000 things project taught me that that if my Smithsonianesque tendencies often made me feel ill at ease, the Smithsonian also offered a way to a cure…

Collecting without a Purpose #1: Grasping, Purging

Collecting without a purpose is just grasping: collecting and holding on…

753 pic by chris

#753 (recycled): picture by my son Chris: yes, I got rid of this one, but there are hundreds more where that one came from…

Grasping

The urge to grasp — to collect and hold on to things for a variety of reasons, or for no particular reason at all — is strong, and The 1000 Things Project did not remove that urge from me. Even now, for instance, I still feel a twinge of guilt about getting rid of a possible Family Heirloom, like the suitcase (#674). Some weeks after I had donated it, I looked at the picture of the suitcase and noticed the initials on it: A.G.S. A sudden stab of regret hit me: oh no, maybe I should have kept it as a piece of family history. What would my family say? Um, wait a second. Who in my family had the initials A.G.S.?  My grandmother was Sarah Amanda Sener, but her maiden name was Gingrich, so maybe it was her suitcase under the name Amanda Gingrich Sener? My younger sister confirmed that this was the case, and also that she had no worries about my donating the suitcase to charity. Still, this incident got me to thinking: even if one of us could remember the family history behind an object, what was the point of keeping that object if the family history was relatively trivial and if it had no inherent value to any of us otherwise? I certainly wasn’t going to use that suitcase as a suitcase ever again. More importantly, what was the point in feeling a twinge of guilt about getting rid of a “family heirloom” if the connection to that object was weak or had been lost? How was this thing any different from any other object which was lost, long forgotten, or never even known about?

There's that suitcase again...

#674 (donated): There’s that suitcase again…

This helped me realize that my connection to my things often loses its power if the personal connection is lost. My parents had so many things in their attic that simply mystified us: where did all the hatboxes come from? Where did those 18th century 10” tall German bibles come from? What were the stories behind these things? Although these objects were fascinating in their own right, it would have been far more rewarding to know the stories behind them. Grasping too many things — collecting them and holding on — can make it easier to forget their stories or to fail to pass their stories on to others. We might forget where we got them in the first place, or forget that we even have them. As a result, soon we become incapable of deriving pleasure or energy from them through memories, happiness, or quiet confidence in their future value or use, and they begin to weigh us down.

I looked at my own collections of things for which I had forgotten the stories, for instance mementos from former students who gave me things as tokens of gratitude, and I felt bad that I couldn’t remember the story or sometimes even the person. But I usually held on to them anyway, in case I remember sometime in the future. The urge to grasp is strong, after all.

Every once in a while, though, I’d find myself reacting to this mindless tendency to hold onto something for the sake of holding on; instead, I would simply just let go.

Purging

Purging can refer to a healthy process. It’s the urge that drives countless numbers of spring cleanings. It’s the satisfaction of relieving ourselves of a heavy burden, the relief and calm that can come from liberating a physical or psychological space: a cleaned-out closet, a now-empty corner of a basement, a reduction of the vampire load of things that one no longer has to think about or even remember. Purging can generate gratitude from donating useful things, from ceasing to deprive others of their use. In my experience, unfortunately, purging too often meant “enough already!” It became an outburst of simply getting rid of stuff thoughtlessly when I was overwhelmed, stressed out, or had reached my limits of patience.

The process of clearing our parents’ house certainly stretched us beyond our limits of patience. At some point, the experience of dealing with so much stuff was so overwhelming that we went into full purging mode, loathe to keep anything except for a few things we considered most valuable or precious. Even then, there were moments of hesitation during the process of sorting through this mound or that, in which one of us would identify a random thing — a watch, a vacuum cleaner attachment — and would say out loud, ‘this could be useful; maybe we should keep this’ — and then everyone else would look at that person and start laughing until he or she came to his or her senses, remembered the reality of the situation, and tossed the thing into the dumpster. In the course of clearing out their house, we filled three-and-a-half freight container-sized dumpsters with trash, in addition to all the things we were able to recycle, sell, or give away. There were many things that we might have decided to keep under different circumstances but couldn’t or wouldn’t under these circumstances. It was a purging experience, and not in a way that my parents intended or that we might have liked.

Although they were not nearly as numerous or intense, I had similar moments with my own stuff during the 1000 things project. Sometimes it was the result of cleaning out a nest with too many small things, for instance a collection of miscellaneous office junk (#715-26; trashed) culled from a few drawers, or “assorted small items from bag” (#728-747; trashed). After a while, sorting through so many little things began to test my patience. Other times it was an individual thing such as an old basketball (#587; trashed), an old roll of film that I realized I would never develop (#859; trashed), or a tape measure (#941; trashed) which I got as swag from a conference but which didn’t work well. In these latter cases, the process of trying fruitlessly to figure out a better fate for each thing was what drove my patience beyond its limits. The volume of choices overwhelmed me, decision fatigue set in, and finally I just said “the hell with it” and either tossed them in the trash — or more often, decided to defer the decision, which is to say I reverted to grasping — holding on to the thing even if I really couldn’t tell you why. One of my fears is that such grasping leads to even scarier forms of collecting without a purpose…

Celebrating the Art of Clutter?

paper clutter 614

Cause for celebration? I think not…

Should we in fact be celebrating the art of clutter? Well, yes. And no.

As it turns out, getting rid of stuff is very much in vogue these days; organizing our things has become a small industry, and it is both humbling and instructive to do an Amazon Kindle book search on the terms “clutter” and “decluttering”.  A quick perusal through the catalog of results reveals the themes motivating this mini-genre: have less stuff, be minimalist about your stuff, become organized, improve your life. There’s a bit of a skirmish between the neatniks who abhor clutter or disorganization and those who tolerate it.  There are even some interesting connections between decluttering and weight loss (lose your stuff, lose your spare tire).

Inevitably, there is also a backlash against this current trend, as illustrated by this recent New York Times article that implores us to “Celebrate the Art of Clutter.” My neighbor Joel alerted me to this article, in part because he and his wife Esther are aware of my 1000 things book project. We’ve swapped stories about our experiences with dealing with our parents’ stuff; some of her stories may even make it into my book (if she’s agreeable). Joel travels around the world for his work, and he apparently has quite the collection of mementos as a result. (He has even joked on several occasions about buying the house under construction nearby to store his collection.) So I wasn’t surprised when he shared this NYT article with me, which I read during a recent flight to the West Coast.

The article’s author Dominique Browning sees the current decluttering craze as a “cyclical event” which has once again gotten out of hand, and her article is a rallying cry for another counterattack by the troops in the pro-clutter camp to which she clearly belongs. Even though I don’t agree with its conclusions (more on that below), I actually love this article for several reasons. For starters, having started the process of reading several books on decluttering, I can understand where Ms. Browning is coming from. Her article is a protest against “being barraged with orders to pare down, throw away, de-clutter,” and to some extent she accurately depicts the objectionable qualities of this movement: prescriptive, earnest to the point of zealousness, with occasional overtones of smugness and moral superiority. The article also cleverly skewers this approach at times, for example:

Entire books (books we will soon enough be told to toss) cover the subject. And, even then there is an “art,” a Japanese art, no less, to doing so (and we all know that any Japanese art is the most artful art of all).

This latter sentence is a thinly veiled swipe at the NYT best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which describes a detailed method for dealing with clutter that does indeed elevate de-cluttering to a near art form that is clearly influenced by its Japanese author’s cultural roots. Having read this book on my recent flight back to the East Coast (here’s my review of the book), I can appreciate Ms. Browning’s sarcasm.

I also appreciate the article’s message about celebrating our material possessions, that our stuff is a reflection of a human needs: “…We admire. We desire. We love. We collect. We display…. We treasure.”  All that is well and good. Ms. Browning clearly believes that her way is what’s best, at least for her. And I can’t say that it isn’t — for her or you or anyone else. But I do believe that she is off base in three important respects.

The first one becomes clear when she starts describing her “entirely different agenda” in more detail — in particular, the part about “fantasizing about how I am going to pass my things on to my children. Who, I insist, must take them.” Uh oh. Because her things are so wonderful that of course her children will want to have them eventually; in the meantime, mommy knows best. Personally, if my mother had taken the trouble to tell me she was going to put her precious stuff in a warehouse for my future inheritance, I would have already been thinking about how I was going to sell it off the first moment I could (after going through and culling a few select objects). Irrespective of what Ms. Browning’s children actually think about this, her approach is selfish and short-sighted IMO. She celebrates her things because of the meanings she brings to them; it’s selfish to try to impose those meanings on anyone else, and it’s short-sighted to believe that this will happen.

The second one is in believing that accumulation is human nature and something to be celebrated, and that clutter is thus the best way to enjoy things. My own experience makes me far less sanguine about this prospect; modern society makes it far too easy to accumulate to excess without our even realizing it. I have seen or heard of too many people who reached a point where they had too many things, where the accumulation of things made it difficult or impossible for them to appreciate any of their things.

The third one is her unabashed embrace of covetousness. There’s a reason why that’s one of the Ten Commandments. I think she’s lost perspective, that she’s too invested in her things, based on her description. There’s a point at which our things can begin to overtake their intended proxies — experiences, relationships, emotions — and then the two-way street of possession turns in favor of the possessions, then they start to take over our lives.

There is value in holding, but there is also value in letting go. One of the fun things I learned from my 1000 things project was that there are many ways I can let go of a physical object while still deriving its pleasure and value.

So what I liked most about reading this article was that it was a gift because it helps me clarify where my book stands: somewhere in a middle ground where the focus is on having a healthy relationship with things.