Basement Archiology.

I know that using the TV as a babysitter is not going to win me “Parent of the Year,” but there are moments where there just aren’t a lot of other options. To be fair to myself, I don’t actually own a television and haven’t for well over a decade. What I do have though is a laptop and my own personal “Leaning Tower of Pisa” built entirely out of the kid’s DVDs and the empty cases in which they are supposed to be put neatly away. I do my best, but the cases often do far less of a job protecting the movies that came in them than duty as coasters for either my coffee or beer, depending on what time of day you happen to catch me. Either way, provided that a disk remains relatively scratch free, popping one in will buy me about a half hour of productivity as Short Stack and Lulu Belle learn about something wholesome and educational. Thus far, I haven’t mistaken a Miffy DVD for say… The Guns of Navarone or Big Trouble in Little China, but I could see that happening eventually. THAT will be a fun time to explain.

Being the Christmas Season and I, being a sucker for the trappings thereof, I’ve been slowly tarting up the house with the trapping of the Holiday. It’s something that I get form my Mom and though the gene isn’t as strong with me as it is with her, it’s there nonetheless. Her house is always decorated like something out of a children’s book and it was magical to watch the transformation happen as a child. As a kid, I just assumed that everyone’s Mom went bonkers with the seasonal decorations and cookie making. I’ve since learned that’s not the case, so I do what I can with my own meager attempts to carry the torch for the sake of my own children’s holiday memories. The DVD that the kids were now successfully glued to gave me the chance I needed to do some rooting in the boxes that lurked in darker corners beneath the house.

Let me explain my house, just briefly. It’s small. No. It’s VERY small. We have exactly one closet in the entire structure and that is crammed to the bursting point with coats and boots. When we moved in here seven years ago, it was only a summer camp with no pretensions of being anything but that. It sat on posts and scoffed at the notion of insulation. I’ve spent the last seven years and a wheelbarrow full of cash changing all that. We now mostly have insulation in the walls and ceilings, but most importantly enough, we also have a basement. A FULL basement that is about seven and a half feet high at its shortest and nearly nine and a half at its highest.

It is also, do to the lack of storage anywhere else in the house, packed to the point of horror/hilarity. Finding anything down there requires persistence, the ability to balance on one foot for extended periods of time and very strong arms so you can carefully tilt four stacked boxes at once so you can peek into the fifth one. This can often result in something that Action Girl and I refer to as a “stuffalanche.”

With the few moments I had and the baby monitor turned up all the way and clipped to my belt, I moved boxes and totes in an effort to find a missing piece in my Christmas preparations. I didn’t find it, naturally, but as is often the case when I go spelunking through boxes of odds and ends, long forgotten, I did find something else that made me stop cold.

A rapidly disintegrating cardboard box spilled its contents at my feet, and among the old pay stubs, bank statements and notes to my self to do things in 2006, I saw a red binder.

My red binder.

THE red binder.

Once, I had a business that was based some distance from my house. It was a drive to get there and though it was hell on my car and the gas I burned up was impressive, it did give me one thing that I don’t really have any more. Solitude. I’d leave in the morning for work and since Action Girl works mostly night shifts, she’s be too groggy to be calling me as I drove on my commute. Content to leave the radio off, I’d spend that time in my car just letting my mind wander and observe things as I whipped by. It was a very nice way to start the day, to be honest.

One day as I trundled along the highway, I started to compose a little poem in my head. By the time I made it to work, I had worked most of it out and was pretty happy with it. Once my coat was hung up and the lights turned on, I sat down and scribbled it on a bit of lined paper. The next day, I did it again. Then again. I really grew to enjoy what quickly transformed into a morning ritual, and though I did not write something everyday, I did put my mind to it pretty often. By the end of the year, I had quite a little pile of prose. I’m hardly the one to judge its quality in the world of poetry, but it was good to me.

At some point, I got concerned about the scraps of paper with all that work and thinking poured onto them and decided I needed to transfer it all to my computer. I put them all in a red binder and brought them home. Then we lifted the house and the binder disappeared.

Normally, I’d not be too concerned about this. My attitude about these things tends to be, “Hey, it’s got to be here somewhere.” and I’m usually correct. This time though, I was worried. Very worried. After the house was picked up, had a basement put in and plopped back down on it’s new underpinning, my Father-in-law had come over and “helped” This is a dangerous thing. Though he has a good heart and the nervous industry that most twenty year old do not, he also has a very bad and well earned reputation for throwing things out that do not belong to him or that no person in their right mind would toss, all without clearance from the owner. Here I’m thinking about the bag of nuts and bolts that held my table saw bench together. No joke.

Long after the visit, I discovered that he had “helpfully” cleaned up an area in the house that, though I admit it, was knee deep in… stuff and debris, it also contained my binder of poems. It had been hastily put there with everything else during the house construction and was going to be dealt with… later… whenever that would be. When I looked at the spot now, it was empty. I knew he had also been to the dump at least twice during his time here. My heart sank. I never asked him if he saw it. I didn’t want him to feel guilty for only trying to help.

I actually wrote one last poem about my book of poetry moldering away under piles of trash at the city landfill, and then I didn’t write again. For whatever reason, the spirit to write poetry just sort of went dormant for me. I tried here and there over the years, but it just didn’t flow like it did before. Not having the commute to quietly reflect anymore, no doubt was a major impact, but thinking of a year’s worth of writing, gone for good also killed the joy.

With a lightning fast snatch that would have caught a fish by surprised, I grabbed it with both hands before it disappeared once again. Eye’s wide, I fearfully examined the open edge of the binder to look without really looking. I had other red binders like this one. It could easily be filled with receipts or old product information, long since irrelevant. No. It wasn’t that.

A smile spreading across my face, I opened it up to see sheet after sheet of hand written thoughts and personal observations. A year’s worth of thinking and writing. I scanned quickly and then snapped it shut and hugged it to my chest, eyes held tight.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” was all I could say.

The little spy speaker on my waist told me that the show upstairs was coming to an end and thus too, my ability to remain here any longer. Holding the long lost binder under my arm, I headed back to the living room where Short Stack immediately burst into a long and accurate description of the show they just watched as Lulu Belle scurried off in search of a lucky stuffed animal with whom to have tea. I listened with half an ear as I made a new home for my memories in a safe and easy to remember location upstairs.

I still have a lot of Christmas-ing to do around the house and that’s the main priority for me, but it will be over soon as well. Once it is, and the kids are tucked into bed, I have some transcribing to do. I don’t know what is in store for me present-wise this Christmas, but I’m already as happy as I could be. What was lost is found and with the distance of time, I’ll be reading these again with new eyes as I type away in the night.

Merry Christmas to me!

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The Dump

When I was kid, we didn’t have curbside garbage pick up. At least, I don’t think it was an option. What that meant was that every weekend, my father would load the trunk of his otherwise pristinely clean car with bag after bag of household refuse and drive them to the land fill himself. This, on the surface, doesn’t sound so bad, but you have to know my Father to understand the ramifications. Though my dear and understand Dad is normally a very level headed and flexible individual, when it comes to caring for his cars, he’s obsessive, verging on the pathologic. His vehicles are always cleaner than clean and could double as an operating theater for brain surgery if it weren’t for the facts that first, it would be too cramped, and second, he would chase everyone out with a window scraper before they could leak brain juice on the upholstery.

His rabid defense of his cars from all things messy has always been a bit of a mystery to me. For the most part, he couldn’t care less about vehicles in general. He doesn’t lust after a Mustang or drool over Mercedes. The various makes and models just don’t turn his head much. He would (and has) however, defended the unblemished interior of both a brand new Chevrolet behemoth-mobile or a company owned AMC Eagle with equal gusto. The bottom line is, if it’s his car, it matters and it will, oh-yes-it-will, be perfect. If you ever are in the market for a used car, you want his.

This makes the dump trips all the more amazing. It must have been a teeth clenching experience for him to drive his car, with a trunk full of trash, down the muddy road and into a giant valley of garbage. These trips took place on Saturday mornings and more often than not, they happened with a little boy in the back seat. I was always game for going to the dump! I thought it was awesome!

The long, dirt road snaked down into the craterous pit and moving along the periphery, yellow monsters with massive steel wheels groaned, shifted and feasted on the stinking piles. All around us were the leftovers of thousands of homes, cast off and destined to be pawed through by some alien archeologist of the future. What ever will they think we were like?

trash

Naturally, getting out of the car was the very first thing that I wanted to do. What kid wouldn’t? Everything was fascinating to look at and most of all, I wanted to “help”. Children of a certain age are almost always up for “helping” and it is a trial for just about every parent out there. The efforts of the son or daughter are earnest and heart felt and will inevitably make the job at hand go six to eight times slower than if you could just handle it yourself. The Saturday morning dump trip had the added bonus for my Father of having his son track dump juice back into the car when it was time to go. I can only imagine what this did to his blood pressure. Being a kid and thus possessing the attention span of a squirrel on amphetamines, I would naturally forget myself and put my feet up on the seat back or pull my legs up next to me, smearing someone’s old lettuce and fish sticks on the upholstery. My dad, doing the best to be his best would remind me a gently as possible about keeping the car clean. This would happen roughly every sixteen seconds for the rest of the way back to town.

As we headed back, dutifully cleaning hands with moist towelettes that appeared magically from the glove box, we’d chat about this and that and more often than not, make a detour to a local doughnut shop and pick up provisions for a successful Saturday morning back at home.

These days, we don’t call them “dumps” any more. They are “transfer stations” and the massive land crawlers that buried our troubles in leaky pits have been reassigned to move bins of segregated household items so that they may be recycled at the proper facility. Or, perhaps buried in segregated pits far far away. Our own transfer station is a lot cleaner than the one I remember from my youth. Though we do have city pick up, this requires us to remember to get the cans out the night before; a seemingly simple task that we somehow forget astonishingly often. I pack up my less than pristine car with the cast-offs from our home and drive the short distance to the facility, my own son chattering away to the back of my head. We pull in and naturally, he wants to help. Mercifully, the various bins are far too high for his little arms to swing bags into, so I get that envious job all to my self.

Though missing the massive pit of refuse, what our dump does have are all the sleeping metallic dinosaurs that had entranced me so long ago. Short Stack likes to review them as they sit, lined up for inspection. All he needs is an officer’s hat and riding crop and it would be the perfect image of a general reviewing the troops.

“That’s a front loader. That one’s a backhoe. This one is a grader.”

It’s an instructional way to spend a morning.

Once the trash has been deposited and the battalion reviewed, we head back to the car and buckle in. His boots will inevitably wind up on the seat back and I’ll wince as I feel my seat get kicked and think of the mud. This is nothing to what my Father had to endure, however. Our dump isn’t a dump at all. Just a collection of skids and dumpsters full of neatly separated debris. There are no elderly fish sticks to trod on and bring inadvertently back home on our shoes. The seagulls don’t even seem to visit there, looking for an easy, if not rancid, meal.

There’s no doughnut shop nearby for us to stop at, but that’s okay. Action Girl might be making waffles or pancakes back in the kitchen. Into the garbage will go the eggshells and the empty bag of flour, priming the trash can for next week’s trip so we can see what’s going on at the dump.

The Land Before jpegs

The lights go off. My whole family is sitting in the dark facing one wall. There’s a faint humming and then a blinding flash! KA-Click! And up comes the first image!

These are fond memories for me. Actually, memories of memories. The family slide shows were always fun despite the hoots from the audience that the projector runner was going too fast, too slow or that the picture was out of focus. That big silver screen was magical and the “Zoooop!” sound that it made as it was extend up, ready for the show to begin was always so appealing to hear.

The piles of carousels from vacations past. The pictures of aunts and uncles who looked impossibly young. The popcorn!

It’s interesting to think back to a time not so long ago when I was carefully picking out the right ASA film for the picture taking that I was planning to do. The special holsters for the telephoto, macro and zoom lenses. The equipment was fun. It made you feel professional. You knew what you were doing and the fourteen pounds of camera equipment lashed to your torso proved it.

When I was young, like so many other kids, I got a little Instamatic 110. It even had the pedestal for the flash cubes, supposedly to cut down on redeye. That little black rectangle and I went all over the place. It was dragged to camp, hiking and Disney World. I vividly remember taking “pictures” even though I knew it was out of film, just for the satisfaction of hearing that “click” of the shutter and the ratchet sound to advance the film.

The 110 naturally, took print film and in various dusty boxes are zip lock baggies with piles of thick prints, corners neatly rounded and going sepia with time.

Then at some point, I got my Dad’s old 35mm. It was a Minolta. Its steel body made it weigh a ton and there was only the one, do everything, lens. It was fully manual and the as far electronics went, there was built in light meter. That’s it. I loved it, used it well and if the lack of lenses made it difficult, if not impossible to take some photos, it made up for it by taking the most exquisite black and whites of any camera I’ve ever owned.

On one particular trip to the Middle East, we took a long bus ride and I foolishly put it in the pocket of the seat in front of me. Naturally, being a kid, I forgot it when we disembarked. I realized it just as the bus was pulling away and started going bananas. My Father quickly left me with the baggage and managed to chase down the bus after a few blocks. To this day, I’m totally astonished that he managed to get the camera back. I also NEVER put personal belongings in the seat pouch again. I still have the camera.

For some reason, taking slides always seemed to be the realm of adults. My Father, Grandfather and uncles took them by the pound. Somewhere there is a picture of me on a family vacation, holding up a plastic bag full of shot rolls of slide film. There are easily fifty rolls in that bag. Over the years and a few cameras later, I too took some slide photos, but never like they did. I still preferred the prints. I could flip through them as I pleased and it was never too fast or too slow. If they were out of focus, you tossed them.

The other day, I went down to our local landfill. I hate going there, not because I dislike the duty or the smell, but because right next to the entrance, there’s a little hut. That hut is where you can leave stuff that still works but that you don’t want. I’m a packrat by nature and places like that call to me like a siren’s song. Despite my best efforts, I looked as I passed by. My eyes popped and I hustled to the different bins, metal, plastic, lawn clippings, in an effort to ditch my load and claim my prize before it was nabbed by some other, speedier packrat.

Quickly trying it out to make sure it was not broken, I happily toted my brand-old, slightly dented, but other wise perfectly good, projector screen back to my now empty trunk. With childlike glee, I snuck in into the basement in an effort to avoid the “What did you bring back now?” that would likely get lobbed my way from my very understanding, but not infinitely patient wife. I can’t say that my dump-return track record gives me much room to argue the point.

So… Now all I need is a functional projector and once again we can turn out the lights, sit down and argue that the pictures are going by too fast, slow, out of focus, backwards, where they were taken and by whom. The meager number of slides that I have will make this a slightly less lengthy experience than the family slide shows of yore. I’m betting that my Father’s collection alone is in the several thousands.

Still… there are more than enough to make an few evenings out of it. The real question is whether I’ll be able to resist getting my old 35mm back out and picking up some fresh slide film.

So, who’s making the popcorn?

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