Ever feel compelled to do something, then wonder in the middle of things why the heck you’re doing it? It’s been that way for the past month with me and housecleaning–or rather, the throwing away of old stuff.
Not that I’m all that messy of a guy in the first place (my folks might disagree), but I’ve been on an absolute tear lately to throw away objects from my house and office. In the past month, I’ve filled a couple of dumpsters worth of discards, and have donated dozens of bags of books, housewares, and other belongings in a seeming effort to reduce my two story house to something more like the domicile of a Swedish architecture student, or possibly a Trappist monk (albeit one with a taste for music gear and the odd leather sofa).
I also felt the strong compulsion to finally do something about the 300 or so cassette tapes–mostly of old time radio shows like Suspense and The Shadow–which had been staring at me from my office bookshelf for the past four years. Grabbing a high-end dual cassette deck I’d used ages ago for studio applications, I proceeded to hook it up to my office computer’s sound card with a grim resolve to slowly and painstakingly transfer each of the shows to digital form. Suddenly, however, the tape transports of both decks seized up and refused to eject or let go of the tapes. I took a brief look on Craigslist to see what it would cost to get a new tape deck, then looked around online for digital replacements for the shows and discovered that others had already striped enough Old Time Radio (“OTR” to the fans) up to the internet to last me multiple lifetimes. Without looking back, both the malfunctioning deck and the hundreds of tapes hit the office garbage.
The guys at the Human Computing also got dragged into the act, as their old boss returned and immediately started shifting around uncomfortably wondering why this cluttered office space no longer resembled the glass-and-steel design office he’d imagined when we first moved into the place. After a big push to catch up on filing the hundreds of comics that were laying about and clearing down all the front desk surfaces, the guys and I laid into the storerooms and back office this week, clearing out further dumpster-loads worth of excess shipping boxes, comic giveaways from years past (there are still about 500 copies of Jesse James’ Marvel giveaway in the dumpster outside our office if anyone wants them), wonky old office chairs, and even the giant trade show light panels that I so proudly designed eight years ago, but which no longer fit in with our current Comicon setup.
At some point in this frenzy of destruction, I started to ask myself why? Sure, the house and office were messy and needed a good cleaning, but some deeper animating factor seemed to be behind it all, or I wouldn’t be taking quite so much glee in seeing my formerly treasured belongings hauled away. It also wasn’t so much that I was becoming an acetic and eschewing all worldly belongings, or I wouldn’t have similarly spent so much time in the past weeks updating studio equipment and replacing old office chairs with cool new ones.
No, the real reason for all this is that I’ve been feeling in need of a bit of a reinvention. It had been far too long since I’d really looked around at the various objects in my life and asked whether the promise they held was still part of the life I had now or wanted in the future. Sure I’d spent hundreds of happy hours listening to those old cassette tapes, but would they hold the same magic after hundreds more hours spent remastering them digitally, or would I be better off simply declaring the project done and moving on? Similarly, I’d once been proud as anything at the sounds I’d conjured out of my now vintage studio effects, but would it feel just as good doing the same thing again? Or was it time to move on, use more modern tools, and make something new?
Computer geeks have a term for programs that once worked perfectly, were stored on viable media, but which suddenly become crashy and glitchy when loaded up again after several years. They say they’ve suffered from “bit rot”. In truth, the programs haven’t changed–they have exactly the same 1s and 0s they had when they were stored away long ago. What happened is that while they were gathering dust, the world around them changed. Computers got new hardware and new operating systems–countless little updates that kept them vibrant and alive while the old programs stood fixed in time. Then one day, in a fit of nostalgia, you try to load up the old CD-ROM only to discover that it doesn’t work anymore. It had become incompatible with the new world not because it had changed in some way, but because it had stayed exactly the same.
I’ve been so busy living my life away from some of my belongings that by the time I looked back, it didn’t make sense for me to own them anymore. Those books; that formerly favorite (but now worn-looking) shirt; even those giant light panels–the question was not “had I loved these things?” but “what role were they going to play in my life going forward?” A lot of things made the cut, but a lot of other things headed to the charity shop, went home with friends, or simply hit the dumpster. I don’t have infinite space to store things in my house or office, and everything I keep has to earn its place. Without this sort of periodic housecleaning, the weight of my past dreams starts to crowd out the room I need to live my current ones.
But what do you do about nostalgia? Does clearing out room for the future mean that you have to mercilessly cut yourself off from your past? I’ve hit on a partial answer, which I suppose might be called experience compression.
Just like I might archive old computer files into a big .zip file in case I ever need to get back to them, there’s often a way to leave myself a way to go back to visit my past without it actually taking up much room in my current life. For instance, I’m writing this post not a dozen feet away from a MAME arcade machine (an old computer in a video game cabinet running the “Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator”–MAME–with real arcade buttons and joysticks, and the ability to run hundreds of old games I loved from back when I was a teenager). Similarly, I can now leave myself open the option to revisit a rackload full of old studio effects and sounds via software that runs in no physical space at all on my computer; or pull any album from what was once a bookshelf full of CDs from my MP3 library.
The internet is a wonderful source of “offline backup” should I want to relive the past, as virtually any old book, song, or movie from years ago likely exists in readily accessible digital form, or can be acquired quickly at a relatively low cost to that of storing the same object for years on the off chance I’d want to visit with it again. I don’t need to store things that I can reach out and acquire on short notice at an affordable price. And knowing this makes it possible for me to let go of things I might otherwise hoard.
My wife Carolyn once asked me why I wanted what she considered to be a big house. To my way of thinking, I didn’t want a big house, I wanted a big life. I told her I thought a house was a space for storing dreams, and I just wanted a house big enough to hold all of mine.