Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Basement archaeology.

I’ve decided to celebrate the new year by unpacking the basement.
Not the everyday stuff which we put into use as soon as we arrived. No, I'm talking about that huge pile of boxes that has followed me around since university back in what my kids refer to as "back in the day."
Back in the day - right after I finished scratching my Master's Thesis into a piece of sheepskin with a hunk of charcoal - I packed everything I owned into liquor-store boxes and carefully wrote my name on each one. Then the boxes followed me around for the next hundred years or so, mixing along the way with my wife's cardboard boxes, multiplying, and producing a large number of smaller cardboard boxes along the way.
Back then I hated throwing anything associated with school and learning away, partly because it had all cost so much - which also explains why my parents hated to see me throw any of this stuff away - and partly because I had this sense that one day, I would need to look up something I had written about Attila the Hun in second year history. I envisioned sitting around the dinner table some Sunday evening, and having one of my children suddenly turn to and asks: "gee, Dad, I sure wish I knew who was leader of the Huns in 411 AD"
"Funny you should ask," I would be able to say, "Hang on a sec." And then I would scoot downstairs, find the correct box, pull out my brilliant term paper, and quote extensively from it to a rapt audience.
Or, I thought, perhaps one day I'd be writing, say, a magazine column about how I have a whole bunch of unpacked boxes in my basement, and I would find that I needed to know how to spell "Attila", and when Attila lived, and I would be able to scoot downstairs etc., etc.
But of course, in all these years, I have never once had occasion to open any of those old boxes. So finally the time came to bring up those boxes, and see what it was we thought was valuable enough to pay movers hundreds of dollars every few year to shift from house to house.
Here's some of what I’ve found.
A box full of albums by The Monkees, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Archies; several boxes of high-school textbooks dating back to when the earth was still flat; two broken lava-lamps; a bag of kitty-litter; a toaster-oven (remember those? They were a kind of microwave oven without the microwave: too big to toast bread, too small to toast anything else, and people always got six when they married); several unfinished macramé wall-hangings and, of course, at least a thousand boxes of term papers.
I also located the lid to the Mr. Coffee machine we sold in a yard-sale five years ago, a left-handed glove (the right hand of which I threw out in '86), and what I think is a bag of sandwiches I made sometime during the Nixon years.
The whole experience has been like being on a kind of archaeological expedition, sifting through the detritus of a lost culture, finding ancient tools (one-armed nutcrackers) and lost art-forms (empty bottles of wine covered with multi-coloured candle wax), and wondering what it all means.
Of course, it turned that I couldn’t bring ourselves to toss any of the stuff away. Some day the kids - or other future students of "back in the day" - may want to know what our lives were like, and who Atilla was. So in the interest of posterity, I’ve packed everything back up and labelled it all with my kids' names.
I know they'll thank me for it some day.
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