All posts tagged: Family

Ring by Spring!

engaged

Not that I think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it, but I’ve always been wary of people who choose to get married young. It always seemed like something that was reserved for people who were fundamentally different than me—Jesus freaks, for starters, and following that, hopeless romantics and fools. I was mostly horrified when, at around 18, I did the mental math and figured out that my own father was only 23 or 24 when he proposed to my mom. That’s only 5 years older than me, I remember thinking. The 80s must have been fucking nuts. 

This was probably around the time that it somehow lodged in my brain that I was walking a radically different path. Absent sunny personality traits, basic people skills, or even a baseline amount of emotional stability within my day to day life, I figured I’d be alone forever. I’d probably get a dog at some point down the line, but anything approaching real human companionship would more likely start and end with a few very close friends. It’s generally hard for me to be around even those I love for more than a few hours without needing a long break, and I decided that I was OK with being the sort of person who just cherishes their alone time. It was kind of dark and mysterious to be that way, and a decent way to recast the anxiety that I’d very likely die alone into a conscious, liberating choice.

There was a long time when I would have told you that I loved living alone, that I preferred my hours spent in solitude. In a way, it was kind of true, but it was a notion fueled mainly by self-delusion. Truth be told, left up to my own devices, my behavior seems to toggle somewhere between dysfunctional and mildly self-destructive, but in the thick of things I couldn’t really see that. But then I met Max.

“Love at first sight” has always seemed, to me, like one of those stupid, sappy, mythical concepts that bad music and dumb movies have made us all believe in. And I won’t say that’s exactly what I experienced with Max—more like a creepy obsession, like discovering an incredible new band and being rendered useless to do anything but listen to their music and look at photos of their tour and dream hopelessly about a relationship with the frontman. I’d just seen the movie Fatal Attraction for the first time a few months before we met, and all of a sudden I had a glimpse of what might drive a person to boil a pet rabbit. It was both terrifying and exhilarating.

What I remember most about the early months of our relationship was the emotional chaos of feeling so much fear and insecurity and something not unlike bliss simultaneously. I had a difficult time imagining that my feelings could be reciprocated, and besides, I couldn’t fathom that they would last. I knew myself, and worried that the feelings would get stale, or I would get bored, or he would get bored, and the bottom would fall out. But then the early days gave way to weeks, which became months, and nothing really changed. And now we’re two and a half years out, and we’ve moved swiftly to create this whole life for ourselves that I can’t see ending. And I really don’t want to see it end.

Much to the disappointment of everybody close to me, there’s no great story about how we got engaged. There was no scene on a mountaintop, or a rooftop, or a beach, or a Jumbotron at a sports game. There wasn’t a moment when I turned to find him on one knee, the sound of a small box clicking open, or even any real impassioned rejoicing. As I’d been the first to use both the words “boyfriend” and “love” so many months before, at some point I’d made it impeccably clear that the proposal—if ever there was one—would not be my duty. I won’t say it was a fair deal, but it was one we both agreed to.

When you know you’re probably going to marry someone but nobody’s really ready to make the leap yet, you find all sorts of awkward ways to embrace the tension surrounding the issue. For my part, I fell into a horribly unbecoming habit of hinting at it all the time: “I don’t see no ring on this finger!” I’d yell after jokingly waxing poetic about one of the One Direction boys long enough for Max to get annoyed. It became a kind of perverse game: describe a future that didn’t include him for long enough and in enough detail for him to take the bait, at which point I’d pull something from the limited arsenal of familiar refrains. “You don’t own this!” I’d scream in mock-outrage. “Like Beyonce always says,” I’d remind him, “if you like it…”

And then, one cold night when we’d both had a little too much to drink, with friends in the next room probably mixing more cocktails, he just said “OK.”

“OK, what?”
“OK,” he said, “maybe we should do that then.”
“Do what?”
“You know—that. That thing, with the rings.”
“You’re drunk.”
“No I’m not.”
“No, you are. If you want to talk about this tomorrow when we’re both sober, we can do that, but we are not making this decision right now.”
“OK, but I’m going to keep asking.”
“You haven’t even said what you want me to do yet.”
“You know.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but it was the first topic of conversation when we woke up the next day, and I think by breakfast, we were engaged. Or something like that. It happened, in any case, and that’s all I really care about.

I sat on this news for a while, sharing it slowly, piecemeal, among various friends and family before it really became public information. It wasn’t any big secret, but in a way, I liked the privacy of it all, the feeling that I could think about it by myself before opening it up to the congratulations and excitement of others. When another student in my writing class this past semester noticed a ring on my finger, the whole class took part in a sort of collective ooo-ing and aww-ing and questioning that left me, frankly, a little queasy. Am I really that kid? That person who, in 2013, ended up with a ring by spring, who is thinking simultaneously about final exams and my wedding? It’s so far from the type of person I took myself for, so distant from wherever I expected my life to be at this point, that it’s all a little hard to wrap my mind around.

The next week, during a couple of hours before the class was set to meet again, I went to sit in the park and read. I’ve never worn any sort of jewelry, so for a while it was a shock to the system to feel the small weight of a band around my finger, like when I got braces and spent weeks running my tongue over the textured, metallic surface where my teeth should have been. A group of 8 or 9 homeless-looking alcoholics stood around some benches nearby, squabbling over the dregs of a vodka bottle and the last hits of a small joint. Evidently, one man had borrowed another’s sunglasses and hadn’t returned them. A woman had recently started smoking pot again, and her boyfriend (they broke up and got back together twice in the space of 30 minutes) slurred his disapproval. One man slept quietly on a bench in the middle of it all. Due to substance abuse, mental illness, or some combination of the two, each of them was, individually, a walking disaster, and the interactions between them moved so quickly between love and hate that it was impossible to keep track. Just as I was losing interest, among all of the yelling and the fighting and the making up again, I saw one man turn to another, put his hand on his shoulder, and say “I don’t have a life vest, but can I grab your arm, man? Because I know you’re going somewhere safe.”

In the moment, I didn’t know what to make of them, but out of context, the words took on a kind of weightiness. They’ve reverberated in my skull for the last few weeks, I think because they encapsulate so much of what I feel. I’m the type of person who has always spent more time worrying about things than enjoying them, more time feeling anxious about the future than looking forward to it. It’s a condition that makes it hard to just let go and be happy, to feel confident that I’m doing the right thing, to dispense with the lingering, crippling fear that I’m making terrible choices at every turn. But I’ve found a certain kind of foil in Max, who isn’t that way, and who accepts my certain brand of crazy but doesn’t allow it to define me. Max, who is patient with me, who is unreasonably kind, who has made me more happy than any other person ever has, who makes me happier than I can imagine anyone ever will. Who, when bobbing around in what often feels like choppy waters, makes me feel so safe.

Thank you for letting me grab your arm, Max.

 + + + + +

In case you’re wondering, our rings are actually inexpensive brass rings from here. I don’t know how other gay couples deal with this, but we both liked the idea of upgrading to gold bands at the wedding, because an engagement without some bling is just no fun (and gold is kind of spendy).

Life
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Happy Birthday, Linus.

linus1

Of the many strengths of the human mind, gauging the passage of time just isn’t one of them. Sure, we do well enough sometimes with minutes and hours, but things seem to get progressively sketchier when we scale up to weeks, then months, then years. It isn’t a coincidence that every time New Year’s rolls around, we experience a collective sense of wonder——my god, another one, already? I’ve come to think we’re just wired with this deficiency, an adaptation of sorts, because if we realized how swiftly everything truly goes by, we’d feel so hopeless.

So, I know people always preface with this kind of thing, but I can’t believe it’s been a year since we went out for a walk with one dog and, long story short, came home with two. I mean, when I really think back——about the weeks of trying to figure out where he’d live, of finding him a foster home, of eventually deciding he could just stay with us, and then of the subsequent weeks of potty training and trying to get him to eat decent food, and now the months of forgetting what it was like not to have him around——I guess I can believe it’s been a year. But it still sounds like such an awfully long time.

When we first found Linus, the vet thought he was between 9 and 11, so we went with 10. So I guess now he’s between 10 and 12? So we’ll go with 11? Happy birthday, Linus. You’re old. Or as the vet put it recently when discussing an upcoming blood test, “geriatric.”

I don’t say “old” as a derogatory term. I love old things. I love old houses, and old furniture, and I especially love old people. And as it turns out, I love old dogs, too. Linus’s past is full of mystery and intrigue, a whole universe of stories we’ll never get to the bottom of. In a way, that’s frustrating——the not knowing——but it’s also kind of romantic. While I know he’d been horribly, inhumanely neglected when he came to us, I don’t like to think that his whole life was spent that way. I prefer to believe that was just some weird pit-stop he made in the land of Bad Luck, that maybe fortunes changed and he fell on some hard times and decided to pack up his knapsack and hit the road in search of greener pastures. And when he finally found them, he was all perfectly weathered, world-weary and ready to settle down.

I think it takes a certain type of person to decide to adopt an old dog, and I won’t pretend I’m one of those people. It means knowingly missing out on stinky puppy breath (which is my favorite smell in the whole world), and silly doggy adolescence. It means never seeing a full set of teeth, or watching your energetic puppy calm down into some version of itself that’s calmer, more dignified, and wiser, somehow. And, the unpleasant truth of the matter, is that it means you just might not have your dog for very long, which is a particular point that nobody seems altogether comfortable talking or thinking about.  But I’m not really one of those sunny people who walks around ignoring stuff like that. And despite my deepest admiration and respect for people who make the choice to adopt old dogs, I can’t really imagine signing up for it. The way we saw it was that we didn’t really have a choice——he fumbled his way into our lives, and we either had to accept that graciously or risk that nobody else would decide to love him, ever. And that just wouldn’t do.

Who knows how long Linus will live——maybe he’ll be one of those wonder dogs who lives until he’s 25, or maybe he’ll be a normal dog who lives until he’s 13 or 14. Either way is OK. That’s always been one of those unspoken understandings between Mister Linus and I. I’ll take care of you as long as you stick around, little guy, and all you have to do is love me. That’s your only job. I won’t try to put you through the mental hurdles of sit or stay or learning your name. You’ll have everything you need, and you just have to hold up your end of the bargain.

Max’s mom, Sue, once commented offhandedly that all Linus really wants is a warm body to cuddle up to. In some senses, I think that’s basically true. Linus likes everybody and everything, and nearly anyone who sits still for more than a few minutes on our sofa will find a dog sprawling peacefully across their lap. But I think Linus and I have a special thing between us—a type of love that I can’t really convey to most people, or even expect other dog owners to understand. When I was little, I read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass because I liked the cover when I saw it at Borders. I don’t recall enjoying the book, but one of the ideas in it really appealed to me——that everybody got a little spirit animal called a dæmon, a dedicated creature metaphysically attached to them through, like, magic n’ stuff. And that’s how I feel about Linus. Mekko is my beautiful, perfect baby——my lovable problem child——but Linus? He’s my dæmon.

People often think it’s weird that we have Linus and Mekko, a high-spirited Pit Bull, in the same house. I do, too. Mekko is the dog I always wanted——beyond intelligent, sharply focused, energetic, overly friendly, and as neurotic as her dads (which is to say, extraordinarily neurotic). Mekko is the sort of dog who could probably learn all sorts of exceptional things if we put her up to them, like sign language and math and how to rescue babies from burning buildings. She’s the type who wants to get where she’s going, who’s always looking ahead for the next challenge or exciting thing. People say dogs live in the present and don’t think consciously about the past or future, but I don’t think that’s really true. Mekko probably doesn’t think about what her life will look like when she’s 30, but I know she’s always thinking about somewhere just a little ahead of the present, just beyond it enough that we don’t know what it looks like yet.

But Linus lives thoroughly in the moment. He moves quickly when he feels excited, but most of the time he moves at a pace not much faster than a crawl. Fresh flowers, discarded food scraps on the sidewalk, the fragrant aroma of someone else’s pee——these are all things Linus feels obligated to stop and appreciate fully, with every ounce of his attention. He greets each discovery anew, as if it’s the most fascinating and enticing thing he’s ever encountered. Absent any schedule to keep or goals to fulfill, Linus is left only with what’s in front of him, here and now. He’s the one that literally makes us slow down, take long pauses, and remember that maybe everything doesn’t have to happen so fast. Maybe time will just wait for us a little longer than we thought it could. Maybe we have all the time we need.

Life
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Real vs. Fake: The Eames Lounge

beware-of-imitations

I know this post is kind of a departure from my regular programming ’round these parts, but what can I say? It’s Monday, it’s almost the end of March, it’s snowing, possibly this is the rapture, my apartment building has no heat, and I woke up feeling like it was high time to nerd out over chairs.

So. Remember how I used to have a fake Eames lounge chair? Back when my living room looked like this:

enje

Yeah. Well. When we received the very special things from my grandparents’ house, there was a brief hot second when I had two Eames lounge chairs—the real deal, straight out of Zeeland, Michigan circa 1972, and the fakey guy who I think was manufactured by Plycraft, probably a few years later.

“Reproductions” and “replicas” and “inspired-by” designs have been around for forever, but it seems like only in more recent years have these unauthorized replicas inched closer and closer to looking like the real thing. Now. There is a whooooollllleeee long debate to be had about “real” vs. “fake” and the legal standing of intellectual property surrounding furniture designs and who is getting ripped off and how and what this means for society and design and quality and whether the sky is blue. Frankly, I’d rather not get into that because everybody has their own opinions and I find that type of squabbling annoying. Personally, I can’t picture myself buying a newly-produced knock-off piece of furniture for a number of reasons, but I think the rules change a little when you’re talking vintage and secondhand. Nobody’s getting hurt, it isn’t perpetuating the lousy knock-off furniture industry—it’s just good clean old-fashioned thrifty fun times. I support that.

Point is, people often wonder what the differences are between authentic and knock-off furniture—Eames lounge chairs, specifically—and it’s hard to find a good guide explaining it. So being in the unique position of owning both concurrently, I thought it would be a good time to put together a little show and tell.

frontback

The first thing you’ll notice is that the knock-off Plycraft (left) is huge. This is a pretty standard issue with knock-off furniture: getting the proportions all wrong. One of the many things the Eames’s did very well was scale—the 670 has all the comfort of a larger lounge chair, but is really only as big as it needs to be without sacrificing comfort. The elimination of that kind of bulk is a big part of its charm. Even modern-day knock-offs are usually too big or just proportionally super weird.

bases

The base is often the most telling difference between an authentic chair and a knock-off. Vintage knock-offs usually have a base like Plycraft, or a flat chrome X base. The Herman Miller base is powdercoated black with chrome on the top, and each foot has a height adjustment to accommodate uneven flooring. Clever!

Modern knock-offs usually get the base wrong by designing the legs with an incline that’s way too steep. It makes the chair look like it’s frightened or standing on tip-toes, which is just not all that pretty.

tilt

The design of the base also affects the incline of the chair. Vintage knock-offs (and some modern ones) try to make the chair into more of a recliner by adding a spring mechanism that allows it to tilt forward and back, but the base position is much more upright than the 670. The real chair is at a constant stationary position that’s something between upright and reclining. The wood shells and rubber shockmounts give the chair a little flex, but it doesn’t actually tilt at all. Some people find this prescribed positioning wildly uncomfortable, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I found the Plycraft chair really uncomfortable because it required effort to tilt back and remain there, so as soon as I took my feet off the ottoman it would spring forward to its upright position. The 670, for me, really is just right. I love that thing.

sideshock

The biggest difference, structurally, between vintage knock-offs and the real thing is that the plywood shells on the Eames chair are continuous, without any exposed hardware (except, of course, the vertical braces holding together the middle and top shell). Charles and Ray Eames are known for their honest use of materials and exposed structure, but they also believed in elegant solutions to vexing engineering problems—like how to hold this gorgeous thing together. The solution they came up with was the rubber shockmount, which is basically a metal disc encased in rubber. The Eames lounge has 4 oval shockmounts, bonded to the inside of the wood shell at the upper tips of the bottom shell and the “ears” of the middle shell. A black metal plate attaches to both shockmounts on each side, and then the upholstered armrest is fitted on top of the metal plate and secured from underneath. That’s a little hard to explain.

The knock-off chair, however, just says fuck it! and screws directly through the wood shell from the outside instead of into shockmounts from the inside. Make sense? Additionally, the cushions in the authentic chair are secured by clips on the inside of the wood shells and the backside of the cushions, whereas the cushions on the knock-off chair are held on by small screws that go through the shell and into the back of the cushion (which in this case is a lower-quality, thinner plywood shell covered in foam and leather). This all adds up to plywood shells that look OK from afar but are actually covered in screws holding everything together. Not so elegant, but it gets the job done.

backs

Often vintage knock-offs will have a small metal brace between the bottom shell and the middle shell, which takes some pressure off the sides as the main structural support. Whereas the authentic 670 gives the impression of three floating wood shells, it’s pretty plainly obvious how the knock-off works.

Most modern knock-offs look more like the originals because they’ve gotten more ballsy about directly copying both the style and the engineering of the original chair. This is partly where the problem of “quality” comes in, because even the Herman Miller chair is prone to problems. Tragic, horrible problems. Like so.

Broken

I debated even sharing this because it was pretty sad and SUCH a headache, but here you go. Consider yourself warned.

The main engineering failure of the 670 is that it relies solely on the adhesion of four rubber shockmounts to support the weight of a human being reclining in it. What I really wish I had known is that after about 40 years, give or take a few, the rubber tends to shrink and become brittle and the adhesive tends to fail. So, one day, a person—say, your adorable boyfriend named Max—decides to sit in the chair. The bond between the shockmount and the shell fails on one side, putting the pressure of all his weight on the remaining side. In the course of a split second, the middle shell swings backward under the weight, bends, and snaps completely in two. You hear a sickening sound from the next room and know something terrible has happened. You enter the room to find your boyfriend on the floor, your chair lying in a depressing, crumpled mess around him.

I may not have many strengths, but I have one that I’m fairly confident about: I don’t cry over spilt milk. Which is a stupid saying, because really, who would? But for somebody as into stuff and pretty little things as I am, I really don’t sweat it too much when stuff breaks. I break things with decent enough frequency to recover pretty fast. Shattered dish? Whatever. Ink stain on my favorite shirt? Shit happens. Cherished Eames 670 lounge chair inherited from my grandparents?

This was a tough pill to swallow. We’d only had the chair about a month or so, and it had been all smooth sailing and fancy recline-y times, and now it was totally broken and unusable.

My grandparents weren’t the sorts of people who were all that precious about stuff, and I think that’s healthy. For everything the chair symbolized and recalled for me, it is, ultimately, just a thing. It isn’t my grandparents and it isn’t my memories. It’s metal and wood and leather and foam and rubber and some stupid glue that just didn’t hold. Which is shitty, but not as shitty as a lot of other things that are shitty. So there weren’t any tears or real dramatics. We just picked up the pieces, disassembled the whole thing, and got to work trying to figure out what to do.

I found out that this isn’t altogether uncommon. It happens mostly to vintage chairs, but even some new chairs as well. Turns out that Herman Miller only warrantees the shockmounts for 3 years, and after that, you’re on your own. I don’t blame the Eames’s for this—after all, this chair was produced in 1956 and was totally revolutionary at the time. The shockmount technology was an innovative and incredibly elegant solution, and it seemed strong. It did last for 40 years on this chair, to its credit, and had I known that this might happen I would have had the shocks replaced preemptively.

I asked a lot of smart, wood-worky people about what it would take to fix the broken shell, and the news was pretty consistently disappointing. Because the wood breaks at a major stress point, it isn’t something that a little wood epoxy can really fix, and the repair is highly specialized and expensive. A new shell can be ordered from a couple third-party retailers, but I couldn’t imagine that the new shell would match the 40 year old sun-faded rosewood veneer of the remaining original shells. Herman Miller recommends buying an entirely new set of shells from them (the design has changed slightly, and I was told that the new 7-ply shells don’t interface properly with the old 5-ply ones), but that was basically the cost of a new chair and was even more depressing because all I really wanted to do was repair my grandparents’ chair, maintaining as much of the original materials as possible but making it functional, strong, and something I wouldn’t have to worry about. The last thing I want in my living space is something I’m scared to use or uptight about other people using. I don’t believe in “showpieces,” and this chair is no exception.

I even considered this DIY fix, which sounded kind of amazing until I read in other places that it wasn’t likely to hold for very long, at which point the shell really would be irreparable.

So we saved up and let the chair sit in sad pieces for a while before finally biting the bullet and getting the repair done by Olek Lejbzon, a furniture restoration company in New Jersey who specialize in this repair.

ear

If you click the link, you can see that this repair wasn’t done with quite as much finesse as advertised. If I were more concerned about maintaining the monetary value of the chair for resale or whatever, I probably would have been pissed with how obviously mis-matched the grain patterns are and all that, but honestly? I don’t care. The work has a great guarantee and I think was the best solution for us. It seems really strong, and most importantly I can sit in the chair without feeling like I could break it at any moment.

There’s a certain honesty about it, too. It isn’t perfect, but that’s what gives it history. It was my grandparents’ chair, and then it was mine, and then it broke and I did what I could to make it whole again. And it’s all right there, in that awkward little line where something will never look quite right again. And that’s OK.

65.

desk

The neighbors wondered whether a motel might be going up during construction. In the Chicago suburb of Highland Park—composed mostly of large, traditional houses—they weren’t used to seeing anything like it in 1963. Single-storied, flat-roofed, vaguely linear, and covered primarily in bright white stucco, it didn’t look like much from the outside. At best, they probably thought, it was uninteresting—a tacky architectural carry-over of California modernism. At worst, it was offensive. There were certain codes of conduct in places like this, and judging from the architecture alone, rule #1 was to color inside the lines.

My grandparents weren’t the original owners of the house, but I never really saw it that way. They were more like adoptive parents: maybe they didn’t build it, but they were the ones who treated it the way it was supposed to be treated. They hired a decorator when they moved in in 1972, and together they conceived and executed a plan, resulting in something not unlike what would happen if Woody Allen’s Sleeper mated with 2001: A Space Odyssey and birthed an entire house.

hallway

But that wasn’t how I saw it, either, at least not until I was older. I didn’t see it as mid-century modern or 70s glam, and I certainly couldn’t appreciate the curvilinear design scheme that gave the house shape or the particular balance of materials that gave it form. It didn’t strike me as odd that my grandparents owned a sofa made entirely of foam, or that the rug was made of strands of yarn longer than my hands, or that the coffee table essentially amounted to an enormous plastic cube. It was all just part of them.

My grandparents were both people for whom modernism wasn’t any kind of intentional decision or contrived style choice, but just something they kind of emitted and diffused into the air around them. Like Steve Jobs, my grandfather always seemed to be wearing some slight variation of the same understated uniform. He accessorized with slim plastic watches that looked like they’d been flattened by a steamroller. He was a constant consumer of information and news: if there was a new technology, he wanted to know about it. His whole ensemble—the house, the look, the attitude–added up to being the sort of person who embraced the future with open arms.

They fit, together. For as long as I can remember, my grandma stuck to a basic wardrobe of black and white. But there was always a twist: a line of decorative buttons there, a pair of glasses so elaborate and substantial that it was hard to imagine the bridge of her nose supporting the weight. She always carried with her a set of Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pens, a packet of tissues, and little pill-sized tablets of Equal sugar substitute in a plastic dispenser. She was the kind of person who thought everybody she encountered was entirely fascinating, who could listen to a person talk about nearly anything, and do so with utterly rapt attention. Everything was “nifty” to her, and if it wasn’t, you felt as though it was. Profoundly so.

table

And there they were, in that wild 60s house—colored by vivid 70s technicolor—floating around it all like little punctuation marks. They were a part of that house and it was a part of them. And I thought it was the most beautiful place I could imagine.

My grandfather died in 2001, and everybody more or less figured that my grandma would move out of the house in favor of something more manageable and suited to a woman approaching her 80s. But she refused. I found out a couple of years ago that my grandma never actually liked the house—that it had always been my grandfather’s passion and that she had complained about it constantly. But his death brought about a sort of desperate clinging, the despair of leaving it worse than the despair of living in it alone. This went on until she, too, passed away in 2007.

I went back to the house twice after my grandma passed away—the first time, to sit shiva, and the second time, about a year later on a trip to Chicago. To a stranger, it probably would have looked the same. But it felt different. Where before the air always held a slight tinge of her perfume, now it was flat and vacant. The house was still an amazing place by all counts, but something essential about it had dissipated, leaving only a spectacular shell in its place.

clips

Though it would now be regarded more as pathology than habit, my grandmother was a perennial keeper of things: old receipts, letters, coupons, photographs, and other documents. She had a cataloguing system all her own, enabled mainly by binder clips and paperclips, and stashes hidden all over the house. What began as a daunting but straightforward process (“we’ll rent a dumpster…”) turned into an ordeal that took weeks, then months, then years. As middle children often do, my aunt Janis took on nearly all of this work, separating the trash from the treasure, sitting alone in the middle of the living room with mounds of paper building up around her, a pile for everybody. I wonder if she ever considered carrying it all out the back door, walking a rickety stairway down to the beach on Lake Michigan, and just setting it all ablaze. But she couldn’t do that. Instead, she spent nights and weekends, early mornings and late afternoons commuting between downtown Chicago and her parents’ old suburb to take care of things for the rest of us. For Janis, the house became both a thorn in her side and—if not the final—than at least the largest tether connecting her to the past. Anybody who has ever taken detailed stock of somebody else’s belongings knows the feeling: it isn’t just sorting. It’s communing. And when it’s over, there’s a deep feeling of emptiness and finality. There’s no more to be seen or found, and it’s time to move on.

Everybody wanted to keep the house. Janis and her husband, Tom, considered moving in briefly, and my parents even toyed with the idea of relocating from Washington, D.C. to live in it, but it just wasn’t practical for anybody. Once it was finally listed, the large lot on the lake immediately attracted the attention of developers rather than families, who saw in the house only an easy tear-down and the potential for three houses in its place. And that wouldn’t do.

So we waited. For two years, the family refused enticing development offers, hoping that the right buyer would happen upon it and see what the rest of us saw. But it didn’t happen, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sinking feeling in my stomach when I found out that we—the estate—had accepted an offer from a developer. The carrying costs and the maintenance had become overwhelming, and we’d all just lost hope. We negotiated salvage rights, giving us the opportunity to bring in a crew of contractors and remove anything we could—lighting, built-ins, even the doorknobs were coming with us. Admittedly, the idea that pieces of the house could be dispersed and reused across the country was a decent silver lining, but it didn’t help much. The idea of a bulldozer destroying the house all at once was only slightly less palatable than us going to rip it apart from the inside out.

But then something fell through, as they often do when real estate is concerned, and the developers backed out. Amazingly, it wasn’t long after until the right buyers did come along, and saw the house as something special and worthwhile and significant, and offered to buy it. And then it was time to really say goodbye.

Most of the furniture, art, and other stuff got loaded on trucks and sent around the country—to my aunt, just an hour away in Hyde Park, Chicago, to my uncle in Utah, to my parents in D.C. and to my sister in Los Angeles. And we got a few things, too.

closeup

This chair was one of a pair that sat in my grandparents’ bedroom for almost 40 years (my dad has the other one), and now it’s mine. Of course, I know what it is and what it’s worth, but that’s really not something I think about. I love it because it belonged to them, and because I grew up climbing all over it, and because sitting in this chair feels different than sitting in any other chair exactly like it.

chairfromafar

Not surprisingly, it’s also very comfortable and has basically become my permanent office in the apartment.

art1

The other biggest thing that came our way on a truck were these two lithographs that used to hang on the wall behind my grandparents’ bed. They’re really sun-damaged and worth very little, but they’re two of my favorite things. I love them hanging over the bed like that, and every time I peak into the bedroom I’m so happy that they ended up with me.

art2

My grandparents didn’t live to see me become an adult or the sort of life I’m building, or the ones who get to share these things with me. But I think they’d be happy, too.

2 Years Ago Today. . .

max

…I met this guy. Still the best day of my life.

Life
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