When you’re a kid, there are monsters under your bed. When you’re an adult, there are boxes in your basement. The spookiness never stops, does it? It happens every time we move. No matter if we are going to a larger space or a smaller space, nothing can stop the proliferation of unopened and unemptied boxes, most likely left to grow old in your basement — or even rot in storage in some other community. It is written. Don’t get me started on storage companies. The very idea that there’s an entire industry built around the fact that people have more things than places to put them is nearly as mind-boggling as the profitability of selling bottled water, that stuff that flows freely out of your faucets.
We have moved three times in our marriage. Each time we schlep boxes of stuff to the new home. Some get opened immediately. Some get opened and emptied over time. Some stay closed. Why? Who knows? Most likely, we get tired of opening and emptying boxes and just want to get on with our lives, actually living in our new surroundings. There’s also the issue of space and spatial relationships. In short, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to open and empty — where are you going to put all this?
I stare at our boxes and see the image of George Carlin, who so aptly said: “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”
These boxes are pieces of yourself, as if you’re required to carry them around, like detached components of your autobiography. They contain trigger mechanisms that illuminate your past. But like Pandora’s box, there’s both a fear and a temptation when it comes to the actual act of opening one. If you do, you may never see the upstairs of your house again. You will just sit there rummaging forever in a windowless environment until you turn into a gnome or human mold.
My wife and I are both journalists who have saved video tapes, audio tapes and articles. But saved for what? To dump on a university or library or relative? So at some future date, someone can find this stuff and say, “Who are these people and what machine do you need to watch this?”
When is the proper time to give the boxes the heave-ho? We have lived in Vineyard Haven for 30 months and still have at least two dozen boxes in the basement. Maybe some of them contain things we have actually been looking for. That’s the real rub. Most likely, many contain only memories.
How do you begin to discard, to divest, to clean out and create more space? Should I pick a day or a week to go down there and sift, organize and trash? First, I could get rid of all the old mail I keep moving from one house to the next. How many years are you supposed to hold onto those bank check registers?
Going through the boxes is like hyper-texting, like going down the rabbit hole online, following one link to another until you can’t remember why you went online to begin with. Like when you look up Lewis Carroll, which leads you to his life as a mathematics professor, which leads you to determinants and coefficients, until eventually you find yourself staring at a loony site that postulates how the minds of our school children are being corrupted by Algebra, an invention brought to you by the same folks who gave you Al Jazeera, Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. If I stayed with it long enough, I’d probably be reading about Al Jolson and the beginning of talking pictures.
The last time I opened a box, a few months ago, I found old, yellow, brittle newspapers, the kind that turn to dust when you turn a page. Gingerly, I began rereading columns and reviews and going into reveries that took me back to when I wrote them.
I also found an elementary school report card, college term papers, mortgages to homes long gone, recipes for pressure cookers long gone, photos of people no longer known, relic formats like laser disks and Betacam tapes, a Classics Comic book version of Finnegan’s Wake, a poster of Miss Parallel Universe . . . the spookiness never stops.
All this brings to mind a good word for Says You, the weekly radio show my wife and I have been doing since 1996: Pygmachophobia — fear of boxes or of being sealed in a box. Maybe that’s what this reluctance is all about. Those are not boxes down there below the earth, they are little cardboard and plastic coffins.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s my detritus. And it’s the stuff that crosses all lines of class, race, religion, location, logic. We all have boxes in our basements or somewhere. It is written.
But if you’ll excuse me now, I really have to stop writing and tackle this problem. Those boxes in the basement have to go. I mean, think of it, what’s next? Bats in the belfry? Skeletons in the closet?
Then again, perhaps I should first clean out my laptop and trash 5,679 emails.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.