Sunday, March 12, 2017


By James M Jackson

As we approach the coming equinox, thoughts turn to spring cleaning. It’s a tradition, is it not: spring cleaning? Not my tradition, mind you. My seasonal thoughts turn to spring peepers and leaves popping on trees and migrating birds, many freshly attired to attract a mate, and <groan> income taxes. I don’t notice the dirt I’ve tracked into the house until it’s pointed out to me. Nor do I notice overfilled closets, file cabinets, or newsletter mailing lists until there is no room for the addition I want to make.

With that introduction, you’ll not be surprised to learn I am a packrat. Aphorisms I grew up with and still repeat include, “Waste not, want not,” and “You never know when you might need it.” It’s a family tradition. When my father died, I “inherited” a ton (figuratively and probably literally) of family papers and such—mainly because I was the child with room to store all the material. I remember hearing about my grandmother joking to my father when my grandparents transferred the papers to him as part of their downsizing, “From our attic to yours.” I assume my children know what that means for their future.

I recognize this proclivity of mine. I often joked that I kept buying bigger (or more) houses because I needed more room to store books. A couple of years ago, I instituted a new practice regarding my personal library. For every new physical book I buy, one must find a new home. Down south, our church’s youth have a book sale to support their going to the denomination’s summer camp. Up north, we donate books to one of the local libraries. I look at it as giving someone else the opportunity of reading words I will not read again (at least in this lifetime). Electronic books are exempt from the physical storage constraint.

The digital age creates both opportunities to eliminate much of the physical records I keep and an almost limitless opportunity to keep more stuff that no one will ever use. For example, I kept in a file cabinet copies of all my tax returns—the earliest was while I was in high school! Legally, it makes sense to keep the most recent seven years; I filed the remainder because you never know who might be interested. Wouldn’t it be cool to see your grandparent’s or even great-grandparents’ taxes? Or my parents’ taxes the year I was born. (Back when we really were making American great again by investing in education and infrastructure. The highest marginal Federal personal income tax rate was 91%, although my parents’ marginal rate was probably only 22%).

So, I converted my historic tax returns to PDFs and stored them on an external hard drive. Now, if someone wants to know how much I made as a camp counselor in 1969, the answer is still available! That project emptied an entire cabinet drawer. And sometime in the future when my children look at a directory of that hard drive, they can clean the whole thing with one command. So easy.

Photographs are something else again. When film and processing cost serious dollars (at least for my budget at the time), I was parsimonious with my picture-taking. With digital cameras, I’ll shoot multiple frames—you never know which shot will be the keeper. This leads to resource problems. I need to spend time going through all the pictures to determine which are best. But can I delete ALL the others?

Are you kidding? This is me, we’re talking about. Sure, I delete the out-of-focus shots and the ones with someone’s elbow taking up half the frame. But the others? Well, you never know when . . . But I haven’t the time or interest in labeling the thousands of photos I electronically keep, so who am I really kidding here about the usefulness of the thousands of stored images. And yet, you never know . . . Not all that long ago one of my WWK blog mates wanted to use a picture of a house finch to illustrate her blog. Of course I had some to share. It’s that random variable positive reinforcement that feeds my hoarding addiction.

So with that as background, you may be surprised that I recently removed about 30% of the names from my author newsletter mailing list. I use MailChimp, which is free for me, provided my list includes fewer than 2,000 addresses. I was about to add another 100+ names gleaned from a contest, which would put me over 2,000. Faced with the choice of paying to email my newsletters or making room in that virtual closet, I made room.

I figured that the chances of someone who had not opened any of my last five newsletters would suddenly become a rabid fan were dismally small. Turns out using that criterion produced almost 600 email addresses. I admit when I saw how large the number was, I hesitated before pulling the trigger and assigning those 600 people to the terrible fate of not giving them the choice to ignore my newsletter for another year.

[There is room in my newsletter if you want to sign up. Here’s a link.]

I used to have a sign in my office that said, SIMPLIFY. It was meant as reminder that if I did not actively simplify, I would fall into the trap of spending inordinate time and energy managing my complications. I know I kept that sign someplace, because you just never know when it would be useful again. Oh wait, I just did a search of my computer’s hard drive and in two seconds it gave me the link to a PowerPoint file titled “Simplify.” See, you just never know . . . 


E. B. Davis said...

I'm getting less enamored of "stuff" in my old age. Whenever I contemplate acquiring something not expendable, like clothing, I ask myself--will anyone want this when I'm gone, will a future grandchild break this and it be a source of hard feelings, will I have to dust it, is it another poorly made waste of money (like expensive appliances), and will it become clutter?

Since I'm a poor shopper, I've been doing well at keeping the clutter down. Hope you accomplish your goals, Jim.

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks EB. I think it is ironic that this blog appears on "Leap Forward Day" -- certainly not a day created with simplicity in mind.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Elaine, I'm with you on stuff, and I haven't tackled emptying out our house yet.

Grace Topping said...

There is nothing like a flooded basement and resulting mold to make you clear out a lot of stuff. That got us started, and now I am on a roll trying to scale down. It is hard because so many of our things have sentimental value. I keep telling my husband that either we get rid of it, or we burden our children with it. Like you, Jim, I was brought up to put things aside for a rainy day. I've decided that although I might need it someday, someone else might need it today. That has made me feel better about passing things along. First warm day this spring, we're tackling the garage.

Jim Jackson said...

Good for you Grace. I have to say that with each thing I give or throw away, it becomes just a little bit easier for the next thing.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, you are so like me. For instance, I have a two car garage out by my barn that I can't put my car into because of stuff stored there. And then there is the piles of papers and stuff on
my library/dining room/office table that only gets completely cleared off the few times I'm having more than one person for dinner or lunch, like a book club meeting, Christmas for my extended family or a reunion. Maybe three times a year I can see the whole top of that table.
My kids think I have too much stuff, but my house is still open and clear enough to walk through with ease. Just about everything I have is either books or things that have meaning to me; part of my life. Yes, I don't play the guitar or the lap dulcimer anymore, but I'm not getting rid of those two items, either. Recently my two daughters went together to hire a friend of one of my daughters to clean my house for me every other Saturday. Nice thought, but I am perfectly capable of cleaning when I feel like it, and the board of health would never condemn my house in any way. I have read obituaries for years - a good source for characters if you change the names - and only once did I read in a woman's obit
"She loved to clean." Well, no one will put that in my obituary. P.S. I do run the sweeper at least once a week, and swish a dust rag about, too.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria -- I've been in your house. We may have about the same amount of stuff BUT you have a smaller house!!

Yep, I've seen a lot of obits that claimed people loved to cook, or be with friends, or whatever. But cleaning -- not even the one you've seen.

carla said...

I need to simplify. I'll go through purging moods and can be too aggressive in what I get rid of. Then a month later I'm like "where is that blue sweater???"

Jim Jackson said...

Having two abodes a convenient 22-hours drive apart, I forever realize that something I want is in the place I'm not. I usually figure out some workaround, which leads me to wonder whether I should have that thing in either place -- of course, I never take that thinking to a resolution that involves throwing out the item.

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

I have an elderly friend who lives in the old farmhouse where her equally elderly husband was born. They were teachers and didn't farm, instead leasing the fields to a neighbor.

One summer she decided it was time to clean out the barn, which had not been actively used in decades. She opened the doors, looked at the contents, which included a fortune in antique farming equipment, and realized just what an undertaking it would be.

"We inherited it like this," she decided, "and our children can inherit it like this."
She closed the door and left it.

Jim Jackson said...

Funny story, KM. However cleans out that barn will have free room and a lot of free money (or make a living museum type place very happy).

~ Jim

Kait said...

Delightful! I admire people who can keep on and pass on. I think I was born Danish modern in a family of Eastlake Gothic. And that includes my husband. He hides stuff from me so it doesn't end up in the outdoor bin. When we bought this house his comment was, "Finally, enough storage for me." I am a natural minimalist. It gives me peace, but there is a secret--I take great notes, wonderful photos, and keep journals. So, there is a history. :)

Jim Jackson said...

I'm in awe, Kait.

The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words -- for me, the right picture triggers many, many memories.

~ Jim