Tuesday, December 27, 2005

'Tis the season to declutter

I received an e-mail the other day from 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, which is a business that specializes in helping people get rid of stuff they don’t want any more.

The e-mail described some of the things that people had kept for years and finally decided to part with, such as, among other things, a seven-year-old pregnancy test, prosthetic legs, 18,000 cans of expired sardines and a diffused bomb from World War II.

The e-mail then suggested that seeing that a lot of people make New Year’s resolutions to “declutter,” I probably would be doing the same, and that it might be fun if I wrote a column about some of my craziest junk and what had possessed me to keep it.

The e-mail definitely gave me food for thought. My first thought was that I hadn’t “decluttered” anything in about 20 years. In fact, opening closets or cupboards in my house requires the protection of a crash helmet, to prevent a concussion from low-flying objects.

Another thought was that if I wrote about all of my craziest junk, my column would end up being the length of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Sure, I know that there are a lot of things I really should toss out. In fact, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? probably would have a field day in my place. But the reason why I rarely part with my things is purely sentimental.

For example, there’s the dress I bought during my vacation in England back in 1968. It’s bright orange, has huge puffy sleeves, about 50 buttons down the front, and is so short, there is no possible way to sit in it without flashing someone. And even if I greased my body with lard, I couldn’t squeeze into that dress. So why do I keep it? Sentimentality.

And then there’s the set of Teflon-coated pots and pans I bought way back when I got engaged (and Teflon probably had just been invented). There was a company called Fingerhut back then that would send its products to you and, with no credit check, allow you to make really low time-payments. I think I made payments on those pots and pans for about four years.

So maybe there is hardly any Teflon left on them and they are so dented, they look as if I flung them off the top of Mount Washington. And maybe I haven’t used any of them in over 20 years because the flaking Teflon makes everything I cook look as if it’s been laced with black pepper. So why do I keep the pots and pans? Sentimentality.

Then in my bedroom closet, there’s a big box filled with all of the dance-recital costumes I wore back when I still was in grammar and took dance lessons. There’s my swan costume from Swan Lake, my Mexican Hat Dance costume, complete with a glow-in-the-dark satin sombrero; and my firefly costume with light-up wings. My tap shoes and a pair of castanets also are in the box.

Have I kept these costumes and tap shoes for 45 years because someday I think I might have a sudden urge to jump up and tap dance or wear a glow-in-the-dark satin sombrero on a shopping trip to the mall? No. It’s pure sentimentality.

The most clutter, however, is caused by my collection of videotapes. I have videotapes everywhere: in drawers, in boxes under the bed, in cabinets, behind the TV, on racks that hang over the doors, in Tupperware containers under the kitchen sink, and in paper bags and shoe boxes in closets.

Most of the tapes are so old and brittle I don’t dare put them into the VCR for fear they instantly will disintegrate. A lot of them contain TV shows and movies I recorded but never got around to watching, like the final episode of Cheers and the 1988 Miss America pageant.

The rest of the tapes contain hours of footage of my dogs doing exciting things like yawning or chewing on tennis balls, and endless hours of my failed attempts to capture something worthy of sending to America’s Funniest Home Videos.

So why do I keep all of the 4,756 videotapes? Because on one of them, which I forgot to mark, is the TV commercial I created years ago when I won the “Make Your Own TV Commercial” contest sponsored by Building 19.

Someday, when I have about 700 hours of free time, I will fast-forward through all of my videotapes and find that commercial, which is less than a minute long. Till then, not even one tape is going to leave my house…not until I locate my masterpiece.

But I can’t take all of the blame for the clutter. After all, I’m not the only one in the house who is sentimental. My husband still has the tooth he had extracted three months ago. And in his closet, he keeps a brick he took from Lincoln Street School, his alma mater, as it was being torn down. And although I’m not sure exactly where it is, somewhere in the house is an envelope that contains photos of his ex-girlfriends.

Now that I think about it, I just might give 1-800-GOT-JUNK? a call and tell them to come on over…to get rid of my husband’s stuff.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Resolutions for my better half

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions about five years ago after I broke resolutions number one and two (to lose weight and to finish writing my novel) 12 years in a row.

Now I prefer to put my efforts into compiling a list of New Year’s resolutions for my husband. Each year, he claims he can’t think of a single resolution he wants to make, so I feel it’s my wifely duty to help him out.

So far, the resolutions I’ve come up with for him for 2006 are as follows:

· When I have insomnia, I no longer will ask my wife to tell me about her day all over again, to help put me to sleep.

· At least once a week I will watch a TV movie that does not contain bloodshed, weapons of mass destruction, scantily clad women or car chases that involve crashing into fruit stands or sidewalk cafes.

· At least once a week I will watch a TV movie that contains love, romance, shopping, cute little children or puppies. And I will not roll my eyes and complain about getting a toothache from all of the “sweetness” while watching it.

· I will refrain from driving the 50-mile round trip to Pizza by George in Raymond every weekend to buy a 20-inch pizza and an 18-inch steak-and-cheese sub.

· And if I can’t refrain from buying the aforementioned 20-inch pizza and 18-inch sub, I will try not to moan about the stomachache I have or how I need a priest to administer the last rites, because I stuffed myself to the bursting point with 38 inches of food.

· I will learn that my red and black Mickey Mouse and Goofy necktie does not go with my tan checkered shirt. Also, that my “kiss my butt” tie tack that features a little silver man bending over and pointing to his rear end, which has the outline of a pair of red lips on it, is not appropriate for a business meeting.

· I will accept the fact that my wife is always late for everything so I no longer will nag her or try to rush her. I also will learn that when I do try to rush her, she inevitably will end up dropping things, ripping things, spilling things or poking her eye with the mascara brush and making us arrive even later.

· I will admit that arriving late for a movie and having to feel my way to my seat in total darkness and then accidentally sitting on someone’s lap is no reason to pop extra blood-pressure pills.

· I will try to refrain from spontaneously bursting into such songs as “I’m Just a Love Machine” when my wife is trying to concentrate on her e-mail.

· I no longer will whine for every new tool and gadget advertised on TV…even though I still really could use The Clapper because when I’m stretched out in my recliner and I want to read, I hate having to exert myself by sitting up to turn on the lamp behind me.

· I will stop getting upset every time my lottery ticket isn’t a winner, even though my dream of traveling all over the country in a private jet and sampling cheeseburgers from coast to coast still has not come true…and my gallbladder may not be able to handle it if I have to wait much longer.

· I will consider taking my slacks or jeans to a seamstress and having them hemmed when the legs are dragging on the ground…instead of compensating by pulling the waistband up to just below my nipples and wearing it that way.

· I will not beg my wife to make orange Jell-O for me unless I fully intend to eat it before it turns into a shriveled-up ball.

· I no longer will watch TV shows based solely on how attractive the lead female character is rather than on the plot.

· I will throw out all of my socks that no longer have toes or heels in them. Ditto for my underwear that looks as if it got caught in the crossfire during Bonnie and Clyde’s shootout.

· I no longer will wait until my wife’s on the phone to ask her a dozen questions about such things as where my toenail clippers are or on what channel the Xena, Warrior Princess, reruns are.

· And last, but not least, I promise that I will hire a housekeeper to do all of the housework for my wife…and that the housekeeper will look like Aunt Bea on the Andy Griffith Show, not be imported from Sweden and wearing a skimpy maid’s outfit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gift swap flop

I don’t know why, but I never seem to have very good luck when it comes to those Yankee gift swaps at Christmas time.

In a Yankee swap, everyone brings a wrapped gift and puts it on a table. Then each person picks a number out of a hat. The person who picks the number one, selects the first gift and opens it. The person who picks the number two, selects and opens the next gift and if he doesn’t like it, he can swap it for number one’s gift. So, if there are 20 people at the party, the person who picks the number 20 can swap his gift for any of the 19 gifts that were opened before his.

Number one, however, because he went first, when there were no other gifts for him to swap for, finally gets his chance to swap after number 20 is done. So what it basically all boils down to is that in order to really make out well at a Yankee swap, number one is the best number to pull. And number two is the worst.

I have pulled the number two at least 15 times at Yankee swaps. So every time I was fortunate enough to open a really nice gift, I knew I had a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of hanging onto it.

I remember the time I opened a pretty ceramic tea set, complete with an assortment of imported teas. I am a big tea-lover, so I clutched the tea set against my chest and then cast my fiercest “swap for this and die” look at everyone at the party. By the time number 15 stood up to unwrap her gift, I was feeling pretty confident that the tea set was going home with me. I even allowed myself to relax.

That’s when she revealed her gift…two crocheted covers that fit over toilet paper rolls. One was lavender and the other was pink, and both had big white crocheted flowers on them. Who’d ever brought the gift, generous soul that she was, even included the two rolls of toilet paper.

The woman’s eyes scanned the room as she searched for a gift that was better than the toilet paper...which was just about every other gift in the room. I leaned forward and crossed my arms over the tea set to conceal it.

“I think I’ll swap these for the tea set,” she said, smiling sweetly.

So thanks to her, I went home with some lovely decorated toilet paper.

At another Yankee swap, I opened $20 worth of lottery scratch tickets. I didn’t allow myself to get even remotely excited about them because I knew that they were going to be snatched away from me so fast, the breeze probably would mess my hair. I momentarily was tempted to whip out a coin from my purse and frantically scratch off the tickets before the next gift was opened, but I knew I’d probably be tossed out into the snow if I did.

Sure enough, those scratch tickets were swapped about 10 times before they at long last arrived in the paws of their final owner, the lucky person who’d drawn the number one. As soon as she knew the tickets were hers, she scratched them, and I’ll be darned if she didn’t win $100. The words I muttered under my breath when she did, could in no way have been associated with “Christmas cheer.”

My husband, on the other hand, often gets the coveted number-one ticket during the Yankee swaps. The problem is, he often trades for a gift that leaves me wondering what on earth he was thinking.

For example, he once traded a back pillow, complete with a built-in massager, for a joke book. Another time, he traded a restaurant gift-certificate for a tray that was supposed to rapidly thaw out meat (he didn’t know that our microwave can do that).

Another thing about Yankee swaps that is upsetting is when the gift you bring turns out to be the one that no one wants. There was one gift I brought that I thought was really cute and would be perfect for an office party, so I honestly was surprised when people couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.

It was a joke sculpture of an office worker seated at her desk, which had a computer on it. The computer was covered with cobwebs and the woman, wearing a skirt and blouse, had turned into a skeleton and was slumped over, face down on the desk. She also had cobwebs all over her. The caption on the sculpture said something like, “Spent too much time on the Internet.”

I sat there, anxiously waiting for the woman who’d selected my gift to open it. I just knew she was going to laugh and get a big kick out of it. I mean, she was an office worker who spent endless hours at the computer, so I figured she certainly would be able to relate. Well, the expression on her face when she finally did open my gift was comparable to that of someone who’d just found a cockroach in her sandwich.

“This is really ugly,” she said, holding the sculpture away from her, as if it were contaminated. She immediately traded it for something that cost about half of what I’d paid for the sculpture. All I can say is if I hadn’t drawn lousy number two again, I’d have traded for my own gift.

This year, however, I’m fully prepared for the Yankee gift swap. In fact, I already have my gift all wrapped and waiting.

It’s two crocheted toilet-paper covers in pink and lavender.

With my luck, my husband will trade his gift for them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Bring me a toy store

This time of year makes me think back to when I was a kid, excitedly waiting for Santa to deliver what I hoped would be the equivalent of a small toy store. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed like 300 years to me, but that was nothing compared to Christmas Eve. That night had to be at least 1,000 hours long, and it all but guaranteed a bad case of insomnia.

I also think back to some of the toys that were on my annual Christmas list when I was young. These were the toys that I absolutely had to have…that I would have died without. In fact, if Santa hadn’t brought them, I probably would have found some way to get up to the North Pole just so I could picket the place.

One standard that appeared on my list every year was Play-Doh. I loved Play-Doh. It smelled great, it came in bright colors (unlike drab old modeling clay), and after I made something with it, it hardened into a permanent work of art.

Unfortunately, that also was the problem with Play-Doh. It hardened when I didn’t want it to. Too many times I opened the can, fully prepared to create another masterpiece (like a nose-shaped ashtray with nostril holes for the cigarette butts for my dad), only to discover a hard whitish-looking clump lying in there.

Then there were the exciting new things that I wanted to be the first on my block to own. I remember my first flying saucer, when everyone else still had sleds. It was a big aluminum disk with handles, and it was supposed to skim over the snow and downhill like a bullet.

The problem with flying saucers was that unlike sleds, you couldn’t steer them. The first time I went sailing down the hill on one, not only was I spinning like an out-of-control top, I hit so many bumps and rocks, the saucer ended up looking as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. And believe me, a lumpy flying saucer not only was uncomfortable, it lost most of its “flying” power. By the end of the day, my saucer was so slow, kids who were sliding down the hill on flattened cardboard boxes were whizzing past me.

The gift I begged the most for was the first talking doll, Chatty Cathy. When you pulled a string on her back, she spoke 11 different phrases in a perky, nasal-sounding little girl’s voice. When I opened the box on Christmas morning and saw Chatty Cathy lying in there in her crisp blue and white dress and blond pageboy hairstyle, I was so excited, I opened my mouth to scream and nothing came out.

From that day on, Chatty Cathy and I were inseparable. I pulled her string so many times, it frayed. And my parents got so sick of hearing the same 11 phrases over and over again, my dad threatened to tie Cathy’s string into one of his navy knots.

Maybe my parents wished it on me, but much too soon, my constant string pulling wore out Cathy’s voice recording and she began to sound more like a slurry old drunk than a perky little girl. It was pretty creepy.

Another new-fangled toy I just had to have was an Etch-A-Sketch. Little did I know that learning how to draw anything other than a square on an Etch-A-Sketch practically required a degree in engineering.

For one thing, I couldn’t get it to make anything round. Every time I twisted the drawing knobs, I got squares. I drew people with square faces, square mouths and square eyes. And because the Etch-A-Sketch made only one continuous line with no way to make spaces, every face I drew had to have glasses because the line always connected the eyeballs together.

The worst part was that when I finally did manage to create something I thought was art-worthy, I’d pick up the Etch-A-Sketch and rush to show my mother …and the picture would erase itself. I never quite got the hang of carrying the thing perfectly flat to preserve my masterpieces.

One Christmas I asked for a microscope. I had a lot of fun looking through it at things like salt and sugar, and even a human hair. Then one day, I shoved a drop of tap water under the microscope. I saw a bunch of clear, tiny bug-like things having a pool party in it.

I vowed never to drink water again.

And I’ll never forget my first Mr. Potato Head. Back then, a real potato was required for the head. The kit came with hats, eyes, noses, mouths, mustaches, and even a pipe for Mr. Potato Head to smoke. And each piece had a nice sharp point on the end of it to jab into the potato (and occasionally, your finger).

I gave my Mr. Potato Head a few really “cool” looks. In fact, I thought one of my creations was so cool, I decided to preserve it. I carefully put Mr. Potato Head, fully decorated, back into his box...and then forgot all about him.

“What smells?” my mother, her nose wrinkled, asked one day as her eyes made a sweep of my room. She finally sniffed her way over to my toy chest and dug out the Mr. Potato Head box.

That’s when we discovered that Mr. Potato Head had become Mr. Rotten Potato Head.

Toys sure were a lot of fun back then.