The Things I’ve Carried

I’ve written much of my efforts to rid stuff from my life. This has involved selling my CDs, unloading 2/3rds of my books, abandoning a substantial comic book collection on a Philly sidewalk and tossing out countless items ranging from furniture to tiny knickknacks and other ephemera.

Though I’ve rigorously worked to unburden myself, there have been limits to my ruthlessness. I haven’t abandoned everything. I’ve held on to a smattering of items, some for practical purposes, some because they function as a surrogate for my memory and, yes, even some for sentimental reasons. It happens.

I hold on to clothes far longer than I should, I know this. That’s a fairly stereotypical male habit, and it’s for a stereotypical reason: I loathe shopping. Dread fills me every time I enter a store and see a salesperson bearing down on me. The fact that I’ve had to be that salesperson doesn’t change how I feel about it: If I need help, I’ll find you.

A girlfriend introduced me to the wonders of Off-Price Retailers. These brightly lit, garish labyrinths of bargains are an affront to the senses, but they do boast 1 very important perk: The workers don’t offer to help you. In fact, they mostly can’t be bothered to acknowledge your existence, even when you’re standing directly in front of them. It’s a lousy shopping experience, ideal for me. I spend half an hour digging through racks of poorly organized clothes and end up walking out with something other than what I had meant to buy. On a truly successful trip, the only words I will have spoken during the whole ordeal are “Thank you” when the cashier says “Have a nice day.”

In 1 such retailer in San Francisco, I discovered an item that has remained with me ever since: A faux-leather jacket with white piping down the sleeves. Beaten and torn through years of wear and travel, I refuse to part with it. I’ve bought other jackets in the 7 years since, but she remains my main bitch.

Walking Home
Based on statistics, I’ll almost certainly die in this thing.

My less practical mementos serve to mark the passage of time or to serve as reminders of a period long gone. To this end, I’ve held on to almost every note that’s ever been written to me, whether they were letters from a lover or just offhand missives from a friend.* As I work on my book, these epistles provide insight into my thoughts as well as those of the people who passed through my life. They are a reminder that love fades, friendships hold strong and people make a lot of grammatical errors when they’re emotional.

And then there are those items that have no actual use. Mostly, these include gifts from friends or family. To the chagrin of some girlfriends, I abhor receiving presents. Expressing gratefulness, even when it’s genuinely felt, is one of my greater shortcomings. I am one of the most awkward gift-receivers on earth, and I’d prefer it if you just didn’t bother.

The other reason I don’t like receiving gifts, though, is because I actually very much do appreciate the things people buy or make for me. I might appear to not care, but if you have given something to me – even in jest – odds are good that I’ve held onto it over the years. It’s cost me a pretty penny to ship these items across the country.

On my birthday in Philadelphia, my mother sent me an unnecessary birthday present just 2 weeks before I had to pack up all my possessions and mail it to California. The gift was a small mirror with a wide and fragile ceramic frame, crafted by an artist in my hometown. It’s certainly nothing I would ever ask for, and as far as a mirror goes it’s barely large enough for me to see my whole face in it. It’s incredibly impractical.

And every year since I received this gift, it is the first thing I put on my wall and the last thing I take off of it. Some years, it’s been the only piece of art that I put up. I love the thing, impracticality and all.

MirrorI’ve left a lot of people behind, many of whom I will never see in person again. That’s the way of life; nothing unique to my circumstances. In absence, I have done as much as possible to hold onto some fragment of their lives, their presence. Having these souvenirs has, every year as I packed my stuff yet again, provided a brief reminder of my friends from all across the country.

My mementos are a time capsule and they are worth every cent of extra postage I’ve had to pay to keep them.

And so it can be said: Lovers, co-workers, roommates, friends of all stripes, I have carried them with me.

A Collection

*This is not just a habit from my project. I once received a random letter from a boy in Russia – an apparent attempt at initiating a pen pal – and though I never responded, I’ve always held onto that note.

Are You Taking Notes?

With all the people I meet who learn of my project, I inevitably end up rehashing a lot of the same material.  The list of cities I’ve lived in gets rattled off with all the rhythmic precision of a scripted speech.  My favorite city? How do I pick my cities? What will I do when I’m done with ten cities?  All those frequently asked questions.

But once those details are covered, most people want to know if I’m keeping a record of my years.  Am I actively taking notes or keeping a journal?

The truth is, no.

Obviously, I have this blog, and from time to time I write out an amusing anecdote about an evening out, but I’d say 90% of the content on this site has little to do with the personal moments of my life.  This blog was never meant to be a diary.  I don’t even keep a Captain’s Log.  Over the years I have flirted with writing down my day to day happenings in a notebook, but such habits have never lasted more than two consecutive days.

The problem is that I hate writing about myself.  It’s really a loathsome activity.  Not exactly the greatest attitude for a would-be memoirist, but in all fairness, when I started this project I never expected to write about it.  This is your fault.  Everyone I met who said, “This would be an interesting book,” you’re to blame for my cognitive dissonance.

The truth is, I’m flattered when anyone takes an interest in my banal life, so I’m happy to talk about it.  But sitting and scribbling down a play-by-play of my daily activities strikes me as being one of the more particularly vicious circles of hell.  I don’t care how interesting a person you are, most of your days are filled by strings of boring happenings that no one needs to read about, even via Facebook.

When I set out to finally write this book, I’ll have notebooks of essays, poems, attempted journal entries and random scribbles to help piece together the chronology of my life (because, lord knows, my whiskey-addled mind isn’t remembering most of it).  But I believe the majority of the material I’m going to abstract for the final product will be derived from interviewing old friends and acquaintances in each city.

When the time comes, I hope to fly back to each city for a week, one right after the other, and revisit old haunts, reconnect with people there and see what sorts of flashbacks I can trigger.  Maybe when the time comes I’ll create a Kickstarter project to help fund my 2 1/2 month journey around the country and through my past.

Memories are notoriously unreliable.  Mine sure as hell is.  It’s not that I believe getting other people’s versions of my history will help me craft a more accurate chain of events.  If anything, it’ll probably corrode my own memory further and distort reality to an even greater degree.

But the very thing that makes memories so capricious is what makes them so fascinating.  Our mind stores memory in a complex neural net that puts very little emphasis on accuracy.  It’s all about associations and mental links, and those ways in which each mind remembers an event tells us more about the individual than the actual occurrence.

When we take the collected memories of a group of people and try to form them into one cohesive narrative, we get something far more powerful than a memoir or history.  We create a myth.

10 cities in 10 years is not a goal.  It is not a dream.
It is a story I tell at parties.  It is the thing people attach to my name like it were a title.
It is the root of a myth.

That tag has been in the About section of this site since I first created it.  Don’t let me be misunderstood.  I’m not attempting to craft a false history to seem more interesting, a la James Frey.  What will end up in 10 Cities / 10 Years: The Book will be as factual as I can manage, with as much research and secondhand supporting evidence as I can amass.

But no memoir can ever aspire to 100% accuracy.  Until someone invents a time machine out of a Delorean, there is no hope of truly recapturing a personal history.  Even with the most fastidious note-taking over the previous 7 years (and the next 3), I couldn’t hope to get everything right.  Sure, it’d make remembering dates and names easier, but greater details don’t make for a better myth.

So, no, I’m not taking notes.  I’m living my life, and in a few years when it comes time to type it all out I’ll sew together my memories with those of others and fashion my own myth.

And then I’ll start a religion.