Friday, September 16, 2011


September 16, 2011:

I woke up early this morning, as I increasingly do, got out of bed, discovered my left leg had done something to itself in the night that was painful, had to sit down on the bed as a result to put on my pants, and staggered about doing the rest of the chores--feeding the birds, getting the cup I take to Starbucks out of the cupboard, etc.--while limping. It was my left leg so I could drive well enough, and I had my tea and bagel at Starbucks without obvious suffering, and some ibuprofen back home took care of the pain. But I injured myself in my sleep? Just how delicate are my legs? Wednesday I finished mowing the lawn, and all was fine. Now it's Friday and I'm not.

It's moments like these that remind me of my age, and when I think about my age, I think about all the stuff I have, so much of it, and what to do with it. Lately I've been thinking I should do an inventory, make a list and put a value on everything, because who among my heirs is going to know? Right now, sitting here staring at this screen, I can see on my left the remains of an envelope dated 24 June 1828 addressed to Adam Gordon in the Colonial Department and signed by John Franklin Captain R.N. (for Royal Navy). It was given to me by a close friend while I was working on my book on Franklin and the Northwest Passage. This friend believes that it helps while writing a book to have an emblem of the subject beside you, so I've pinned this item up in its glassine envelope on the wall next to me, and while the book is long since published, the gesture is still there, reminding me of the value of a thoughtful generous friend, and I'll never sell it. But my heirs will, and what is it worth? I can't ask my friend. My heirs will have to ask the market. More to the point, will they recognize it for what it is without me making an inventory and telling them what it is? And do I have a responsibility to do this? Because there's so much stuff, it would take months and months to do a proper inventory. The books alone: five, six, seven thousand? I don't really know. Much of it is not worth all that much, but picking out the ones that are worth something would require me to go through them all, look up prices, assess condition, and do everything else book dealers do to determine the value of a book.

Or, still looking around me, there's the rusty sheet metal mask I bought at a yard sale for a dollar that stares out over my left shoulder. He's clearly a god, and the mask falls in the class of anonymous art, or tourist art, or--well, I don't know, but he's clearly a god. Or the broadside printing of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, "Why the Classics," given me by my friend Marvin Bell, or the photo of a school of koy given me by my friend the photographer Ken Robbins, or the little basket I bought from the 93-year-old woman at the Makah Reservation in the state of Washington, or the neat little Natico clock, also from a yard sale, stolen from the Stanhope in New York. Or the sketch of a dog's rear end torn from a notebook, and above it that old reminder, "If you ain't the lead dog, the view never changes." It was given to me by the same friend who gave me the Franklin signature. And inside the Makah basket there's an eagle feather. What's that worth?

So many things, so many problems. I have a wall of prints I bought in my first marriage that I know have value, and Lorraine and I have more that we bought together, and because old prints are like books, if you know enough you can make out well at sales and in antique stores buying them, but exactly what they're worth is not an easy question to answer, or even guess at. I should probably find the names of reliable dealers for my heirs to take the prints to. Reliable book dealers, too. But the file cabinets are full of contracts, still in force, and manuscripts and clips and notebooks, and what about them? Intimidating. Exhausting. Maybe a bonfire.

Stuff, in short. It can be oppressive, even when you love it. Especially when you love it. I admire people who can keep it under control, but I can't. I have African masks, but no record of what I paid for them or even where they came from, and that was certainly shortsighted. It pays to be organized. Jefferson was supremely organized; when he sold his books to the fledgling Library of Congress he inventoried all 6,000 plus volumes himself--who else was going to do it?--and kept records of his gardens and his purchases and his farm, copies of all his correspondence and letter books describing each letter, sent and received, in brief. Now that's methodical. I just can't be that methodical. My handwriting is a mystery even to myself sometimes. Definitely a bonfire.

Then there are the family photographs, and my grandfather's naturalization papers and his discharge papers from the Swedish army, and the plastic ID media tag on a braided nylon string that let me walk around the U. S. Olympics Complex in Colorado Springs. And I have to ask myself, at what point do I let myself go? Preempt the process facing my heirs and just toss it all in the town dump? Because it is a process of letting yourself go. You're identified with your stuff; it's you in pieces, these are the things you carried through your life, and you care about them, but no one else will; and the monetary value you place on them is going to be much more than anybody else will place on them, because these things are yours; they're your memories, your doings, your satisfactions. What you might call your diplomas. We pass away and the things stay behind, so they're all that's left of you.

Or so you feel. But the truth is, they're only things, and you--well, you are something else. If only we knew what that was.