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From dust cover to dust | Chuck's World


Last updated 8/9/2017 at Noon

A friend from Texas, born and bred and staying put, suddenly realized one day that his children didn’t believe in snow.

It makes sense in retrospect, although it still startled him. Living in the central part of the state, his kids had assumed that snow occupied the same fantasy universe as Santa Claus, fun to imagine but not real.

I realize now that I used to feel the same way about basements. Nobody I knew had a basement, and until I was 12 or so I’d never set foot in one. Basements were a relic of ancient architecture, maybe, or a regional thing that missed my region. They were crucial to plot points in novels or TV shows, but then so was Santa.

Now I know. Nearly 30 years ago, my wife and I bought a home with a basement during a moment of temporary insanity. It was unfinished, almost an afterthought, and we had no idea what to do with it.

We tried. I started a business in that basement, and at different times it was a den and a bedroom, but eventually it just became an attic.

Gravity is a weak force on this planet but it’s persistent, and the physics of junk is an observable science. Come over and observe if you want. Stuff tends to migrate downward.

It’s also an analog basement, in the sense that we used to live an analog life and the detritus lives on. Downstairs.

I’ve spent more than a few hours below the surface in the past week, in one of my periodic spasms of divesting, playing a virtual-reality version of Tetris, shifting old dressers and bed frames around and not making much of a dent in the mess.

And stopping, from time to time, to marvel – and catch my breath – at the residua of the 20th century.

I knew the encyclopedias were there. Bought the old-fashioned way, one at a time via grocery store specials, we had a complete set well before the time they were useless, although I’m not sure they were actually used. Certainly not the way I used them as a kid, a linear experience of turning pages, not clicking on hyperlinks. Wikipedia and other reference sites are rabbit holes of random connections, where hours are lost and knowledge is gained; the analog version was just alphabetical.

And these volumes lost their utility a long time ago, and became albatrosses, physical manifestations of good intentions. Those intentions are still good, but where we were going we didn’t need big books.

But there was more. VHS tapes numbered in at least the dozens, nearly all useless and probably not playable. Numerous CDs, too, casually tossed into cardboard boxes, long ago transferred to hard drives or repurchased in a different form.

Turntables, broken toys, boomboxes, board games: My basement became a repository of obsolete artifacts from another life, and as I cautiously stepped on what floor I could find, the air became thick with dust and nostalgia.

This personal archive of the past century didn’t just contain artifacts, either – it held etymology. If a young person were to muse on the origins of “turn the channel,” I could show them a couple of old TVs that would explain that particular syntax. And if they wonder about “dialing” a number, I could also clear that up with a museum piece of a telephone, covered with cobwebs and mobile only in the sense that I could pick it up and throw it in a box.

Almost all of this was an easy call, a dump run or recycling frenzy away from free space. I got mildly sentimental about cassette tapes with faded labels, stray audio from another lifetime, but it was easy to resist the temptation to listen and remember, mostly because I’d have to find something to play them on.

But the books.

The books will get you, tug at your soul and break your heart. I’ve sometimes been baffled by the affection of friends, the ones who resist electronic books and claim some sensory deprivation if they can’t caress a page or smell a musty binding. I understand but I don’t share this, as words have always been words, and I can read a tablet or monitor as easily as a paperback, and with less dust. So I surprised myself, a little.

We boxed them up, carted them to used bookstores and recycling stations, hoping that a few might be spotted with a discerning eye and salvaged, knowing that most will end up as pulp. The titles are captions to different lives and likes, telling our stories with a glance. They contain DNA, these books, feelings and fingerprints, sweat and tears and something that looked suspiciously like chocolate.

But they also contain moments, physical reminders of learning or dreaming, first glimpses of the reality I lived in and worlds I could only imagine. I realized then that I was holding hours of my life, hours when I could get lost and believe in anything.

I didn’t mourn these books as much as honored them for a final moment, held them and whispered their titles under my breath, remembering where they came from and who I was. They slipped through my sweaty fingers into the recycling bin, the hot August sun making me uncomfortable, and suddenly, for a second, I could believe in snow, because that’s what books do, and why.


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