The Things We Own, Part 8


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 7

Summer 2013

I started throwing stuff out or giving it away that same month. Twelve years of National Geographic, weighing a conservative 150lbs, reminded me of all of the unread magazines I’d tossed from my parent’s basement. I’d stopped my subscription years earlier, telling myself that I would re-subscribe once I’d caught up with the back issues. I admitted that wasn’t going to happen, any more than my father had ever caught up on the thousands of back issues he’d stored. I lifted the magazines into the recycling bin, letting go of both the yellow framed covers and my obligations. I remember feeling lighter the moment my stuff started taking up less space in the world.


I’m still sorting through our stuff – I can’t easily toss things I know others would appreciate. Bringing it back around to Graham Hill’s article, I understand what he is describing when he says “Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me.” He’s essentially paraphrasing Chuck Palahniuk’s most famous quote, whether he realizes it or not.  It is interesting that even though we came about our excesses differently, we had the same reaction to them, a feeling of being overwhelmed and committed to things that have little real value.

Even with fewer of his things around, my father remains with me, compelling me to do better, though my conversations with his ghost grow mellower as his death fades into the past. It’s been nearly ten years since that December night in the restaurant. The seventeen years I calculated then has already wound down to just seven before the first effects of frontotemporal dementia might begin their slow work on my mind. I wake most mornings and go through my checklist. Can I still remember my childhood? Do I remember what I did yesterday? Can I still do basic math? Can I still read? Did I lose some part of myself overnight? How would I even know what had gone?

I feel like the years of reliable thinking are too few, that there is still so much to teach my sons before they are either on their own or I forget the lessons that I want to pass on. I can’t control that outcome, but that bothers me less than it might have a few years ago. Letting go of my stuff has helped me practice letting go of trying to control everything. Each item released represents an acceptance of the impermanence of life. It helps me to remember again and again that most everything is beyond my control.

I can control how I chose to respond, instead of reacting. I can control where I’m putting my attention. Less clutter has shifted my perspective from “what is here?” to “what is over there?” From “what do I need” to “how little do I need.” I find I’m focused on having experiences instead of buying things. I’m finally writing instead of just describing myself as a writer.

I believe that having fewer things has made me a better father. Learning to let go has made it easier to deal with my teenage sons because I accept that I cannot control them. That no matter the lessons I successfully pass on, their most meaningful lessons will come through their own error or embarrassment or failure. I’m not trying to protect them from those lessons, I accept that it is out of my control. I’m trying to teach them how to respond, how to let go, and how to accept the things they cannot change.  

Perhaps fewer possessions will make it easier for them to let go of me when I die. Everything I keep could easily become something that my sons will stare at decades in the future, wondering what it meant to me and what they are supposed to do with it. I don’t want the things I leave behind to be shadows of the man I’d been, boxes of baubles picked up along the way, old hobbies no longer pursued, or stuff I kept because it disappeared into a corner. Instead, I’m working to leave behind only those things that were important to me. More signal. Less noise.


I don’t know if that will make it any easier for my them to decide what to do with my things. I hope they’ll have no guilt as they sort through my possessions. At the least, it won’t take years of their lives. Ideally, there will be items that they’ll keep because it reminds them of a meaningful moment or is a shared passion. They’ll know which items to put in the fire with me to be returned to their base elements and which ones to keep for themselves, each with a narrative explaining its meaning to their children. If we are all lucky, I’ll have as much time as I need. If not, I figure there will be an unintended life lesson or two in the few boxes left under the stairs.

The End.

The Things We Own, Part 7


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 6

Summer 2013

It’s July 1st and the neurons in the back of my head are buzzing again. I’ve bought a condo and after a month of work I’ve nearly finished moving. As I stood in the living room of the empty apartment it felt exactly like my parents’ basement did years ago, small. This didn’t make sense to me. With everything moved out the space should have felt larger. For once, I had nowhere to be and nothing to distract me, so I stood still and waited for the thought to finally emerge.

Only a few days prior the living room was full of both activity and memories. I’d completed dozens of exams and papers sitting on the couch working towards my masters. My sons and I had watched movies, played video games, and assembled tens of thousands of pieces of Lego there. The ghosts of the women I’d dated over the years had never really left. They beckoned me into the bedroom, found a shared favorite book on the bookshelf and bounced over to me in a borrowed shirt to plant a kiss, chopped ingredients in the kitchen, climbed out of bed and strolled, naked and perfect, to the shower, and smiled at me from under a blanket on the couch. Those memories had turned that apartment into my home. With the space empty, there was nothing to anchor the memories and the ghosts had left.


Lego Death Star Build

Their absence changed my home back into a plain apartment with beige carpet and white walls, absent of any personality of its own. I realized that the same feeling was responsible for how I’d felt in Danbury in my childhood home six years earlier. That basement had felt small because all of the things that anchored my memories had been removed. My attempts to figure out the buzzing that cold December night were tied to far too many absent objects. I couldn’t compact 33 years of experiences into a single insight.

I didn’t recognize that even with the anchors removed, the memories of that basement had all flooded back at once – the Star Wars figures engaged in imagined conflicts on the edge of space, the feeling of my knees on the hard floor, the sunlight flooding in through the large glass doors, flying mission after mission on my Commodore 64, the heavy click of the thermostat that started the electrical heater fan’s slow acceleration to drive off the chill – and that the volume of them made it impossible to focus on one. Each was a rock in an avalanche of memory, knocking more rocks loose as they tumbled down the slope, growing exponentially from individual and recognizable moments into an indistinct cacophony of remembrance.


I thought about my childhood home for a moment, remembering all of my father’s things sitting ignored in the storage garage and the guilt I’d felt at throwing out everything I couldn’t save. It dawned on me that I didn’t want to finish my father’s models. I didn’t want to research old family albums. That there was no reason to keep marksmanship trophies he’d never mentioned. In the end, my father couldn’t tell me anything about any of the things he’d owned over his life. They were his things, but like the empty apartment I stood in, they held no memories for me.

I knew what he loved – digital watches with more functions than hours in the day, a well-designed tool, his Gameboy with it’s Tetris and chess cartridges, his Swiss Army knife – but no single item told me anything new about my father. Instead, it was the collection of things that was revealing. They told of a man with many interests, who explored many things before settling on his passions – his marriage to his lifelong love, his faith, his church, his volunteer work, computer programming – and laying everything else to the side.


My father had inadvertently passed along a final lesson with all of his possessions. Each item, cared for or abandoned and forgotten, dog-eared or never-read, represented a choice he’d made. I recognized that he wouldn’t want me to spend time doing anything I didn’t love simply because he hadn’t finished it in his lifetime. He’d chosen to do something else and he would want me to do the same. It didn’t fall to me to complete everything he’d left unfinished.

Part 8

The Things We Own, Part 6


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 5

November 2009

I moved all of my father’s things into that storage unit as well. I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing anything of his away so soon after his death. I spent the long weekend going through the mountain of boxes in the basement, my mind on my own mortality, driven there by my father’s death and being surrounded by the things he’d collected over the years. Were they things that were important to him or just things he’d never gotten rid of?  I’d never know. He’d never told me.

I realized then that the things that mattered to me, that meant something to me, would also be lost one day. The box that clicked closed just so, that perfect stone found on a summer day, my favorite Matchbox car, the cherished book I’d read every other year. They would all be meaningless to anyone else, they wouldn’t stand out amidst all my other things.


We don’t bury our dead with their things anymore, a custom that many ancient peoples practiced. They recognized the parts of a person’s personality that lived outside of their body, the parts of their soul reflected in their prized possessions, the minute bits of the universe that they came in contact with and recognized as parts of themselves. 


Is nostalgia is the only reason I keep my favorite Matchbox car? Is it the vivid memory of afternoon races on bright orange plastic tracks or the incomprehensible connections between atoms that once burned together in the heart of a star? Does the rock feel good and right in my hand because nature has worn it smooth over a brief eon or two or because the atoms in my skin and muscles and bones resonate with their former brothers, now locked in an inflexible pattern? Is that what drove me to pick it up in the first place? Recognition?


I spent the nights dreaming I was back in my parents house again, unable to finish the clean out job, always finding another thing to move or throw away. During the day, I mulled over the parallels of his forced move from Danbury and my departure from my home. Between the dreams and my anger at Talia’s boyfriend moving into the house where my sons lived, I almost missed the buzzing at the back of my head.

I felt it again in a quiet moment as I waited for the moving van, but I was still unable to make sense of it. The immediate need to finish the move pushed it away and when my life returned to it’s ongoing distractions of graduate courses, fatherhood, and the ups and downs of online dating, I forgot about it. Three and a half years later it came back.

Part 7

The Things We Own, Part 5


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 4

February 2008

I drove my father out to my sister’s place in Providence. I unloaded his things, thanked my sister, and climbed back in the car for the drive home. When I got home I unpacked the last of my father’s things, moving it all into the basement. It’s already crowded with dozens of boxes from their place and this latest batch changes the space from chaotic to unusable.


The time and energy I needed to sort through all of those boxes went into visiting my father. I stopped buy at least one night a week and every weekend, often driving him back to our house to spend time with his grandsons. Finally in care, my father’s schedule allowed for a visit to McLean Hospital, which led to an MRI and, finally, a diagnosis – frontotemporal dementia. There was no cure and no treatment. Thankfully, my father was completely obliviousness to his situation. Over that summer, he became less and less aware of his disappearing mind and I became more and more aware of the problems in my marriage.

Talia and I had been under a lot of stress and the solutions that we usually arrived at in a reasonable manner were eluding us. By late summer, Talia insisted that I go to a therapist to address the issues I had that were negatively impacting our marriage. I spoke to someone weekly, but things worsened by the end of the year, with Talia retreating to our bedroom every evening after the boys were in bed.

And so, the new year found me retreating further and further into late nights playing Halo on my new Xbox. Her intolerance for that grew quickly and the Xbox and I were moved to the basement, where I sat amongst the boxes from my parent’s place, squeezed onto an entirely too small love seat, playing game after game of capture the flag, pondering what was going wrong in my marriage.


By February 2009 it was clear to me that she wasn’t working to resolve the issues in our marriage. A late night argument convinced me that things were over and after a sleepless night I suggested a divorce. It seemed like she was happier than when I had proposed 11 years earlier. I found myself following my father’s steps, moving out of a fractured home, uprooted, relocated, reduced, and confused.

As I packed I started to doubt our decision to divorce. I glanced at all of the things I needed for my apartment, but already owned: a vacuum cleaner, glasses, plates, silverware, a bed, pillows, sheets, blankets. All redundant. Expensively redundant.  I asked Talia if this was really what we wanted to do, second guessing what I was sure about just a few days earlier, motivated by the notion of how much it was going to cost to move and set up a new household. Talia didn’t budge. She was certain that we needed to split up. I thought back over the last eight months and those memories drowned out my fiscal complaints.

The apartment I moved to was small and so I left most of my stuff behind. I enjoyed that forced Spartan existence, the lack of clutter appealed to me. The divorce mediation process moved slowly and the logistics of young twins meant I still visited my sons each morning to get them onto the school bus. Talia had purged all evidence of our marriage within hours of my departure. I found it stuffed into a box and moved to the basement, where it still managed to stand out in a room filled with boxes of my and my father’s things. All of which I continued to ignore as I tried to adjust to single life again.

Not unexpectedly, my father’s condition worsened. We’d last had him at the house the prior Christmas, where he sat happily on the couch stroking a new pair of fur lined slippers. His ability to communicate was lost and the dementia had started to immobilize him. It became too dangerous to remove him from the nursing home and more often than not when I visited I found him asleep.

By early July 2009 we began hospice care for him. Amy and I sat at my father’s bedside for three days as he died. The turmoil that his dementia had put us all through came to a close with no small measure of relief. I found myself reflecting on what I knew about him and, more relevantly, what I didn’t know about him. By the time we’d discovered that he was sick, the opportunity to ask him questions had passed. Those things I had wondered would remain unanswered.

The fall brought the revelation that Talia’s boyfriend Luke was moving in and so I defensively removed all of my possessions. I packed everything while they were off visiting her family for Thanksgiving. Luke was described to me as a handyman who’d recently built his own house. So I sold the slightly used riding mower to a friend. I took both shop vacs, unwilling to leave either mine or my father’s behind. I took tools I couldn’t use without a yard or house: a chainsaw, a wheelbarrow, rakes, shovels, a tree limb saw, the snowblower, and two sets of sawhorses. Mr. Handyman wouldn’t need them.  I went at that house like the Grinch visiting Whoville.

I took the furniture pads, the extra light bulbs, all the tape, the spool of twine, every box of nails and screws, and both stepladders. After packing up my shop, I doubled back and removed each and every bit of hardware off of the pegboard. The pegboard was liquid-nailed to the wall or I would have taken it as well. I took the 25 foot extension ladder and unscrewed the two ladder storage hooks from the garage wall. I left the garden hoses; I’m not a sociopath.


I left the box of marriage stuff, I didn’t want it either. Talia was calling me for months afterwards trying to locate tools. “Luke must have one,” I repeated again and again. It was her turn to buy a second one of everything she’d once owned. Their inconvenience was a fringe benefit. My inconvenience was three years of $200 monthly storage rental fees.

Part 6

The Things We Own, Part 4


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 3

January 2008

The new year brought with it a new set of patterns. I would call my father every day to check in and the visiting nurse would call me every other day to provide a status report. She made sure he was eating and that he had clean clothes. His executive functions were gone and it seemed he functioned on habit alone. He would shop, but would buy the same things each and every time. He continued to go to work, the notion of him driving a car every day terrified me.

Talia and I worked in concert to try and find a solution. We spoke to elder care attorneys and doctors. We learned that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would take him into an elder care center that neither we nor my mother could afford otherwise. We learned that what little resources my mother had would be protected as long as she remained married to my father. We worked to set up the doctor’s appointments that would be necessary to confirm our suspicions of dementia and take control of a life my father insisted was just fine, knowing we were running out of time.

I got the message from Danbury the Monday after the Super Bowl. I’d been out at a friend’s house and hadn’t seen the blinking message light that night or the next morning. I wasn’t expecting any news. My sister, Amy, and her husband had just visited my father that weekend and reported he was doing okay. He had an appointment that week to finally see a neurologist and I was driving to Danbury to ensure he went this time. I felt that we were finally ahead of the curve.


The short message led to a longer call with the minister from my father’s church. As we talked the story came together. My father, tired from keeping up appearances for Amy’s visit, had fallen asleep after she left. Later that evening, waking up in the dark of early February in Connecticut, he’d mistaken 7pm for 7am, with the additional complication that his watch was running four hours slow. He rose and went to open the church for Sunday service, believing it to be 7am in the morning.

Another member found him as she was departing from the homeless shelter the church hosted. As luck would have it, Annie was a registered nurse and recognized that something was off with my father’s midnight activities. She got him home and back to bed and the next morning she raised the alarm with the minister. I drove there mid-week to take him to the neurologist and started the process that would, if not get him better, provide him with the oversight he needed to keep him safe.

The neurologist’s visit was typical, in that there was a specific medical process that had to be followed and thus no way for them to help in the short term. What I desperately needed was a doctor’s note I could use to trigger long term disability with his employer. We needed more time to find him a room in the Massachusetts care system and some way to cover the costs before his benefits kicked in.

My father, seemingly oblivious to the frank conversation about his mental health I’d just had with the neurologist, took himself to work despite my insistence that he should stay home. I called his employer and they refused to discuss the situation, citing some statute about employee confidentiality, clearly over their heads when it came to dementia and durable power of attorney. I called his primary care doctor and brought him up to speed on the weeks events.

He agreed to write a letter stating my father had a dire medical emergency and needed to be on long term disability. Feeling grateful for the lone medical professional who recognized that leaving my father driving around was a greater ethical failure than short-circuiting state medical process, I called my sister. She agreed to take him for a couple of weeks and I went to pick up the letter from the doctor’s office. He’d dropped everything to write it.

HR still refused to meet with me and sent my father out to the lobby upon my arrival. I gave him his doctor’s letter and asked him to bring that to HR. Without question he took the letter and walked back inside. I sat and pondered the strangeness of the situation. He’d just carried his own termination notice into the HR department of a large medical device company that was employing him to do quality checks. The entire thing was a Venn Diagram nightmare of public relations, health care confidentiality, and regulatory law. He returned 20 minutes later with another letter and a grin on his face. “They’re giving me some time off!” he said. “That’s great Dad, now you can go and visit Amy for a couple of weeks.” I replied.


And so, that afternoon, just two months after moving my father into this apartment, I’m repeating the scavenge and abandon process, taking only the stuff he needed to get by at my sister’s for a few weeks. I took the glider rocker and hassock that he enjoyed sitting in, the small color TV he got from AT&T as a twenty year bonus back in 1987, and the last of the tools I couldn’t fit into my car on the prior trip. I left everything else.

The neurons in the back of my head were quiet this time. I didn’t have any ties to that place.

Part 5

Thanks to Kate for the Venn Diagram!

The Things We Own, Part 3


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Part 2

December 2007

I stepped back and over to open the door to the adjacent room. I reached in and turned the light on. My father’s workshop, a shared space with the furnace, once covered with tools and electronics and piles of stuff that had been interesting or promising or in need of repair, is now only a bare workbench overseen by yards of empty pegboard. I remembered the remote controlled Jeep I’d tossed away this summer, powered not by the required D-cells, but by empty Polaroid instant film packs. My father had figured out that the batteries they contained would power the toy and for whatever reason, he’d kept dozens of empty film packs.



He eased past me with his find, the empty plastic package for the new thermostat he installed four years ago. He put it back on the peg it had occupied before I tossed it into the trash pile that morning. He seemed satisfied at having completed that task. He had no reaction to his empty shop. At least no reaction that he shared, his natural stoicism and silence were a factor in how far his dementia progressed before anyone noticed. I thought about telling him the packaging didn’t need to be saved, but realized that nothing inside the house mattered at that point.

“Let’s get some dinner dad.” I didn’t bother to ask him if he wanted dinner, his default answer to everything at that point was yes. Another strategy he used to conceal the disease. I turned the light off and checked the garage to ensure it had been closed up. The neurons at the back of my head continued to crackle as we left the house. I chalked it up to last goodbyes and the haunting sensation that comes with knowing it is the last time I will be in my childhood home.

We ate at a nice place in Danbury. It was expensive, but I was sitting across from a demonstration of just how suddenly life can be shortened, so I had no qualms about treating myself. I thought about that word as I sat across from my silent father. Myself. It’s a concept that might hold no meaning to me in the near future. I wondered if frontotemporal dementia was hereditary. I did the math in my head.

Seven to ten years for the disease to progress to the state he’d reached. He was sixty three. I’d just turned thirty eight. I might have seventeen years before the slow moving disease began erasing me. My sons were only five and seventeen years was significantly less time than I had expected to spend with them. Would I be on my way out just as they finished college?

I pushed that scary thought away and drove us back to his apartment. It’s packed with those things I couldn’t bear to throw away. Odds and ends better suited to a garage, all stuffed into corners under the sharp angles of the Victorian roof line. I felt bad about leaving him alone, but it’s after eight and there was still a three hour drive in front of me, plus unpacking the car the next morning, the young kids I hadn’t seen, and the mounting tension between Talia and I as our basement, already in a state of post-dead-water-heater-flood disarray, continued to fill up with the salvage from Danbury. I reminded myself that the visiting nurse would be stopping by tomorrow.


I cleared off a chair and my father sank into it. I’m shocked by how exhausted and old he suddenly appears. My father had been a young man my entire life. He was 26 when I was born and I can remember him being laid up only from the rare sinus headache and one wisdom tooth removal. He was otherwise indefatigable, up when I went to bed and somehow up before I woke up every day. In the space of an afternoon, he’d become an old man. The disease that was destroying his brain had finally started to manifest itself physically.

The guilt I’d felt in tossing out all those touchstones from the house paled in comparison to what I’d felt that evening. I was going to have to leave him there. Between his stubbornness that everything was fine and my lack of preparation for his sudden incapacity, I had no idea of what to do next. I ignored the larger problem and dealt with the immediate one.  

I spent another hour rummaging through unmarked boxes to make sure that my father had the necessities: plates, cups, bowls, and silverware; his lunchbox; toothbrush, floss, soap, a washcloth and a towel; socks, underwear, pants, and shirts. I found myself once again astonished that he was going to drive to work on Monday, more so that he was still working. I hugged him goodbye and started the long drive home with another carload of stuff. I was certain that I wasn’t doing the right thing and equally certain that there was nothing else I could do.

The Things We Own, Part 2


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Part 1

“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

December 2007

By the end of the summer I’d finished the heavy purging. My mom held a few tag sales, donated a bunch of stuff, and then moved out herself. My father remained in the now mostly empty house as it sat on the market through the fall.

We hired a visiting nurse to stop in every other day and check on my father. He continued to work, somehow running quality checks on digital mammography machines and driving himself to and from work. Terrifying notions on both a global and local level. The house sold in October, but my father hadn’t done anything to find a new place to live. Luckily, the visiting nurse quickly located a nearby apartment and so I drove back to Connecticut to help my father move.

We spent the day moving the last of my dad’s possessions to his new place, a tiny, third floor attic apartment in an old Victorian, whose winding, cramped staircase forced me to cut his new bed frame in half and then Frankenstein’s monster it back together with steel plates and screws. It was late in the evening when we finish moving all the important stuff to the apartment and I returned to my childhood home for the last time. Even after filling those three dumpsters, my mother taking her stuff, and moving my father’s remaining things out, the house somehow still has stuff in it.

The large radio cabinet had been the centerpiece of the living room and served as a TV stand my entire life. It was probably worth something as an antique, especially with the tube-based radio still embedded in its interior. But I had no way to move it. I removed the radio and left the cabinet behind, with the scratch-built amplifier my father had assembled in his twenties abandoned on the bottom shelf. I stowed the radio in the car and walked through the top floor, empty now save for the cabinet.

I paused for a long time in the kitchen, staring out the window at a familiar view I wouldn’t ever see again. I paused for even longer in my childhood bedroom, it’s walls now bare of the full page black and white movie ads I’d cut out from the Sunday New York Times, the giant poster of the Manhattan skyline at sunset, and the Carol Alt poster hidden on the back of the door. I stared at the tree in the backyard whose wind-blown leaves had always provided the background soundtrack to the neighborhood kids playing in the late summer light as I laid in bed thanks to my parents’ ultra-conservative approach to bedtimes. I left my bedroom and walked downstairs.


The basement, my childhood retreat and playroom, felt small. I didn’t know why. Was it because I was bigger? Because it’s empty? How could it feel smaller when it’s empty? Was I feeling guilty at having thrown away nearly everything that had been in that room? Was it because I was judging my parents? Nearly empty, the house had revealed its many needed repairs, delayed improvements, and decades of neglected spring cleanings, all put off until time ran out. The neurons at the back of my head crackled, there’s the notion of an idea there, but it won’t reveal itself.


There’s a large pile of trash on the floor near the sliding doors, the large glass planes reflected back my image. I’d thrown the green, insulated drapes away and the cold December night was pushing its way into the basement through the glass. I skirted the pile and walked to the laundry room. Everything was as familiar to me as my own hands.


The number of steps through the basement to the laundry room, the smells, the angled turn through the already narrow doorway, made smaller by the large set of shelves crowding the opening, pushed closer to the door by the enormous 1950s freezer sitting next to them, the distance I reached to grasp the butcher’s string stretched across the room to the light fixture, the tension in the string as I pulled it, the sudden brightness of the naked 100 watt bulb on the far wall. The room it illuminated had changed.

pull string light fixture home depot

All of the familiar things were gone, even the shadows were wrong. I stood still for a moment. My father was quietly pacing in the basement, unsure of what he is supposed to be doing. He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t ask questions anymore. In a few months an active MRI will show the part of his brain that should have been a riot of thoughtful color as an empty blackness. So profound is the damage that the doctors are able to make their diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia solely on the images. They make note of that rarity in a report that is, given the images, both too late and pointlessly long. It confirms the suspicions of the last year, but it can offer no treatment, no recovery, no hope.

I stood still for a moment longer, knowing he can’t tell how long I’ve been there, knowing that this man who had been my father will wait and follow me like the happy toddler he’s become, and I tried to make sense of the crackling in the back of my head. I heard him rummaging in the large pile of trash in the middle of the basement. I pulled the string again and the empty room went dark.

The Things We Own


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“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

When this article was first published in 2013 I’d already experienced many of the same feelings as the author, but was still working on trying to make sense of it all. The roots of these feelings and thoughts started in the summer of 2007.

Summer 2007

For many of us moving is a sign of meaningful change. A new job, a new apartment, or a new city; changes drive us to pack up and relocate. I’d moved to Boston in 1998 for love. Then moved to a shared apartment as a commitment to that love. We moved to a house when that love was ready to blossom into a family. That new family turned out to be twins and drove what I thought would be a final move to a larger home, one we would grow into, but could never outgrow.

At the same time we were moving into that new house my father’s dementia started to consume him. It wasn’t obvious yet, instead there were quiet and subtle shifts in his behavior and personality. Things that had been fixed for decades changed, some of them in positive ways and some of them in negative ways. Over the next year, as he lost more and more of his frontal lobe, his dementia suddenly expanded from the confines of his mind out into the lives of those around him, especially my mother.

What had been a slowly growing tension in a 42-year-long marriage suddenly escalated to a point where my mother had to leave the house. They needed to purge 33 years of occupancy in as many days to get their house on the market before summer’s end, but they couldn’t work together. So I made the drive to Connecticut. By the end of the first Saturday, I had filled the 15 yard dumpster my mother had optimistically rented for the weekend purge. It was easy to determine that stacks of old newspapers and boxes for small appliances that had long ago left for the dump held no value. As the dumpster filled up, objects hidden by the trash started to emerge.

These were things that perhaps had value but no time to find them a new home. And so the next Saturday I filled a second dumpster with books, several decades of Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and National Geographic magazines, dozens of records, two enormous oscilloscopes that I wanted for their scifi kitch value, and 11 square yards of other stuff that I can no longer recall.


It was strange to move items that had been fixtures for decades. Part of it was my familiarity with those things I had walked past so many times. The bookshelves that lined the wall had always been full. Those cans of paint had always been on the shelf above the washing machine. Yards of fabric for projects imagined, but never started, filled the space under a folding table temporarily erected for a quick project in the early 80s. An ancient Bekins moving box full of Tonka trucks stood in the corner of the garage under shelves that held a set of rotting, canvas bases, a broken sprinkler of yellow plastic and aluminum, and half-a-dozen softballs that ranged from decaying to brand new.


My dad’s toolbox had always sat on the two 25lb plates near the garage door, less to keep the indestructible heavy plastic box off the floor and more because there was nowhere else to store the unused weights. Getting rid of something wasn’t considered, my parents found space for it instead. The broken sailboat made of shells had sat for decades on the window shelf waiting to be fixed before I tossed it into the dumpster. I packed the guilt born of discarding that childhood touchstone and many others and brought it home with me.


I kept the tools; newer mechanical tools and ancient woodworking tools. I kept the unopened, un-started, NYC fire boat models. I kept the box of his half-started, unfinished models. I don’t recall him ever showing those to me, they were familiar only from a slow, rainy August afternoon spent peeking into boxes in the basement, especially the James Bond Aston Martin DB7 model with working ejector seat. I’d asked my father about that one when he got home. I wanted to clean it up, fix the broken pieces, paint it and display it. “Later,” he’d said and went back upstairs.


Later turned into a quarter century and I found myself unable to throw the box of models away. I wanted to finish what we’d never had a chance to start. One carload at a time, weekend after weekend, I moved everything that I identified with my father and couldn’t bring myself to throw away back to Massachusetts. His dementia had severed his connections to both his possessions and their meaning to him. I kept the things that I hoped might tell me something about my father that he could no longer tell me himself.

Part 2 

Internal Struggles


, , , , , ,

Intellect reluctantly climbed into the ring. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to fight, didn’t want to be the one delivering the reminder, but most of the group were in Hope’s corner, so that left the job to him. Optimism, Joy, Pride, Fear, Envy, Confusion, Love, even Anger. Intellect shook his head. Anger; once again, misdirected.

Hope was buoyant, an ever-youthful bundle of energy and determination. He danced in place, confident and poised, certain he was going to win. Intellect scowled. Hope had lost the first fight months ago, and every fight since then, he just hadn’t accepted it.

Intellect couldn’t blame Hope. He’d paired with each of those emotions in Hope’s corner in the past and would again in the future. Together, they’d inspired the phrase “It seemed like a good idea at the time” more times than he could count.

The time he drove dad’s new car through a flooded parking lot, a wave of water flowing right over the hood and in through the open front windows, Bravado egging him on all the way. All the times he waited until the night before to start a paper, Pride assuring him that he was smart enough to pull it off. Having a small panic attack in the solitude of the dorm room back in 1988 when Fear convinced him that the nukes were going to fly.

Afterwards, Intellect often found himself paired up with Humility trying to figure out how things had gone wrong. Over the years those conversations nurtured Wisdom and he had grown a strong voice of his own.

Intellect turned towards his own corner. Reason looked glum, “Maybe you don’t have to do this.”

“Don’t undermine him now,” scolded Wisdom, “there is no way out of this. You’ve tried. Hope won’t let go and we remember how that worked out last time. It has to be this way.”

The bell rang and they met in the center of the ring. Hope started things off with a series of quick jabs, confident, sure of himself, feeling Intellect out. The loud, sharp sound of leather gloves striking their targets began to fill the gym.

Tap. Tap. “She’s still single.” Intellect took the jabs with his gloves, no reason to even parry, “She’s looking.” Tap. Tap. “She hasn’t found anyone else yet.” A half-hearted parry this time, Pop. “She’s dated others, she will find someone.”

Hope, seeing an opening, launched an elegant combination, Tat. Tat. Whap. Whap. Tat. “That’s right, she will, because she’s great, who wouldn’t want to be with her?”

Intellect covered up and absorbed the flurry of blows, growing more annoyed. Hope wasn’t telling Intellect anything he didn’t already know. Of course he wanted to be with her, but what he wanted, what any of them wanted, wasn’t the point. He countered with his own combination, Whap. Tat. Tat. Whap. “That’s not a relevant question. She doesn’t want to be with us.”

Hope’s head snapped back as Intellect’s right connected with his chin. Hope regrouped quickly, but in the corner, a look of surprise came over Optimism’s face. This wasn’t going as he’d anticipated. Intellect was going to put up a fight. There wasn’t going to be a romantic reunion, there wasn’t even going to be an attempt, Intellect wasn’t going to allow it this time. Optimism backed quietly away from Hope’s corner.

Intellect noticed from the corner of his eye. One down he thought. The defection had not been noticed by Hope and undeterred he pressed on. Tat. Tat. Thwack. Hope had a rhythm going now, “She might still change her mind.” Intellect waited, knowing there was no threat, knowing where this was leading, “It’s been six months.”

Thwack. Thwack. Whap. “She needs more time, we should wait for her.” Dodge. Shift. Slide. Punch. Tat. TAT.  “No, we shouldn’t. That’s not fair to her or us.” Hope was putting some effort into his punches now, Tat. Tat. TAT! “Once she’s dated enough other guys she’ll realize she was happiest with us.” Intellect mocked him, “Sure.”

Taking the bait, Hope swung hard, overextended, missed, and left himself open “I want to be with her!” Intellect stepped in and delivered a solid right to Hope’s ribcage. THUMP. “If you really loved her, you wouldn’t want her to settle for dispassionate acceptance.”

The air left Hope’s lungs. Envy left Hope’s corner, recognizing that his selfishness was harmful to the woman he desired. Love looked after him, conflicted now, wanting to support Hope, but unable to dismiss that last blow. Two down, noted Intellect and waited for Hope’s next move, growing more irritated at having to cover this familiar, painful ground again. It was pointless. None of these early exchanges really mattered. Intellect would keep dispatching Hope’s volleys no matter what he brought up. He’d known how this would end before he’d even stepped in the ring.

Joy tossed some water in Hope’s face. He recovered and launched a new attack. TAT! TAT! “She looked beautiful in that latest photo.” Intellect absorbed the punches easily, “Stunning. Compelling. Radiant. Do you have a point?”

Whap. Whap. Whap. “Don’t you remember how it felt to have her fall asleep on your chest?” Intellect drew him in, holding back his counter punches, “It was wonderful while it lasted.” TAT! TAT! THUMP. THUMP. “How about how her hair fell around your face when she kissed you?”

Intellect felt those last two blows to his midsection, knowing they represented an opening, he jabbed, TAT! “Like it was yesterday.” He followed with an uppercut, WHUMP.  “Except, it wasn’t yesterday, it was months ago and reliving it day after day, as you drag it up to buttress your plan to win her back, is a cheap substitute for the real thing.”

Joy was smart enough to recognize the difference between passion and sentimentality. He dropped the water bottle and stepped down from the side of the ring to join the growing crowd of onlookers, certain now what the outcome was going to be.

Three down. Oblivious, Hope pressed on.

Technical, but tentative, two quick jabs. Tat. Tat. “If we can just find the right words we can convince her.” Intellect’s response, a straight right that pushes Hope’s own gloves back into his face, THWAP. “Do you have something better than “I love you?”” and again as Hope staggered, THWAP. “Explain to me how begging and longing will make us more attractive.” Pride straightened up and left Hope’s corner. Four down, thought Intellect.

Hope was hurting a bit now, wondering why Intellect seemed to be hardly working at all, while he ached and sweated and bled and noticed for the first time that half his support had abandoned him. A dizzy combination of Fear, Anger, Confusion, and Love spurred him on.

He’ll turn to Anger now, thought Intellect, as Hope spun back towards the ring and charged him with renewed energy. TAT! TAT! THWACK! “It’s your fault for not recognizing what she was asking for.” Intellect didn’t roll with these punches, he wanted to feel this pain, he needed to feel it. “Yes, it’s my fault.” Hope went to work on his ribs, WHUMP! WHUMP! “You weren’t ready, you had too much baggage.” Intellect clenched his teeth as the blows landed, admitting, “Yes. Perhaps.”

WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! More blows to the ribs, Hope was trying to find that knockout shot to the liver, trying to punish Intellect more than trying win the fight, “You didn’t fight hard enough when she left.” Intellect kept absorbing the blows, “I fought as hard as I could, for as long as I could. Longer than I should have.” WAP! WAP! Hope works the head as Intellect finally covers up his ribs, “You should have kept fighting.” As Hope’s jabs pull his elbows up too high, Intellect delivers an angry left to his plexus and briefly stops the onslaught, Pop! “I respected her feelings, her decision.”

Love saw what was happening now, finally saw the set-up, saw where it was heading and rested his hand on Anger’s shoulder, gently pulling him back from where he was leaning into the ring, shouting with rage “Hit that fucker harder! He fucked it all up! Hit him harder!” Anger pushed Love’s hand away and yelled again “Hit him!”

THWAP! “She had baggage too!” Intellect took that punch as well. Hope could hurt him, but couldn’t win. Intellect let it play out, “Yes, but that wasn’t the problem.” TAT! TAT! TAT! “It was! She said she was falling for us!” Intellect let the blows fall, felt his head start to ring, his vision start to narrow. It was okay, he needed the motivation, “Yes, and we fell for her.” Hope is casting about now, trying to find anything to soften Intellect up. TAT! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! “That’s what freaked her out! It was her baggage!” Intellect took the punches and held the center of the ring, “Perhaps. Maybe only when combined with our baggage. I refuse to blame her. I’m not angry at her.”

Love had a hold of Anger’s arm now and had pulled him down from ringside, tossing back the last of his support for Hope as he did so, bringing Hope’s focus back to what he believed was his knockout shot, “We still love her.” Delivered with absolute certainty and the remaining bit of power Anger had provided, it would have been a stunning blow had it landed. Intellect had seen it coming, had known all along it was coming and easily avoided it, back-peddling away, feeling that he’d taken enough of a beating, regretting what was going to come next, and, as Anger moved away from Love and pulled himself onto Intellect’s corner, furious that he was being forced to do it, “A part of us will always love her.”

Hope slouched against the ropes, trying to regain his footing after committing and missing on that last haymaker. Fear and Confusion remained in his corner and urged him on. Hope tossed out only words this time as he struggled to regain his composure, find the certainly that had carried him into the ring, and rekindle the belief that he could set everything right.

“We might not ever meet anyone as great as her.” Intellect waited, growing more annoyed, “You thought that the last time too. And then we met her.” Hope pushed off the ropes, struggling to stand upright, “We’re going to be alone forever.” Intellect circled, baiting him, “That’s not even you talking anymore Hope.” Hope’s gloves were back up, a gleam coming back into his eyes, “She said she was falling for us…”

And Intellect knew it was time to finish the fight. He tightened his fists inside his gloves. This was going to hurt; he was going to make sure it hurt. He liked Hope. Admired him. Respected him for his determination and courage, but the pain he was causing had to stop. There could be no more dwelling in the past and that was going to take a beating they would all feel.

Intellect closed the distance quickly, knowing the fight was about to be over, knowing he’d reached the point where the outcome was revealed. An outcome the rest of them kept refusing to acknowledge, kept wishing would somehow change. Hope, exhausted, quitting never an option, met him and tossed two quick jabs.

Tat. Tat. “But she…”

Predictable. Easily, obviously, predictable and therefor exploitable. Intellect stepped inside, close, using the opening to amplify his attack. Infuriated by the pointlessness of the entire exercise he wanted to punish Hope for dragging them all back to this painful ring again and again these last six months. He let Anger push him to a brutality he could not reach on his own, enraged by the pain Hope had made them all relive, wishing he could kill Hope and knowing how impossible that was, at the least he could ensure they wouldn’t have this fight again.

Intellect unleashed the facts in five brutal blows, drawing his gloved fist back and skyward between each punch, raining the blows down even as Hope dropped his arms and fell to his knees.

“She. Does. Not. Love. You.”

Hope crumpled to the canvas. Clarity came to Confusion and Fear retreated in the face of Intellect’s brutal, honest, undeniable assault. They were all silent now; without hope. He laid there, abandoned, all the fight gone out of him, a seeming impossibility only minutes ago. Intellect ached at the truth of it, as he known he would when he first stepped into the ring. As he knew they all would at unguarded moments in the future, when one thing or another triggered a memory of her.

He waved Joy and Optimism into the ring and they lifted Hope to his feet.

“I’m sorry” Intellect said, “I couldn’t let you go on like that.”

“It’s okay,” replied Hope, “I got carried away and when the others backed me up it made sense to try and change things.”

“I know,” Intellect reassured him, “we still need you; we will always need you. Some things can’t be changed. Some things change when you least expect it.”

Hope straightened up, smiling, picking up on what Intellect was implying, always seeing promise and potential before others did. “We’ll meet someone else.”

“I hope so.” Intellect said.

“I know so.” replied Hope.



, , , ,


Dave Grohl is a rock star. I know this because a few years back I saw the Foo Fighters play live. I’m not a long-time fan, I knew of them, I’d heard their most popular songs, but I didn’t buy my first Foo Fighters album until I heard “The Pretender.” Based on that song I bought the entire Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace album unheard, being at a point in my life where I was finally comfortable with taking a risk on unheard music.

Echoes turned out to be a great soundtrack for my mostly solitary 2010, strangely aligning with my divorce and providing songs that mirrored each emotional stage of that process. But I still wasn’t hooked. I didn’t buy up their back catalog or check the tour schedule.

Then I caught Dave Grohl giving an acoustic performance in a small auditorium on the concert channel. He was riveting. I tuned in at a point where he was speaking to the audience and was instantly captivated. Over the rest of the program he played, talked about the back story to his songs and his creative process and played some more, sometimes alone, sometimes with a supporting band. He closed out the concert with a solo acoustic rendition of “Best of You” that blew me away.

He had already established a deep passion for music and performing that was clear in his playing and interacting with the audience over the course of the concert. Here, with this song and one guitar, he took his performance up a notch and in doing so he took the audience with him; not just a few diehards in the front row, the entire audience, all 800 or 900 hundred of them, all the way to the back row. They connected with that song and matched his passion and I knew then I had to see Dave perform live.

A year and a half later, the Foo Fighters opened with the first two songs off Wasting Light before breaking out “The Pretender,” “My Hero,” and “Learn to Fly,” with Dave leaving the main stage to move into an aisle carved through the floor audience, at times leaning into the crowd as he played. After that blistering opening, Dave took a minute to ask a question: “When did weed become legal in Boston?” He never let up on the sarcasm from that moment on, taunting the audience by explaining the band was about to throw down a “monster one hour set”, knowing the internet was alive with stories of their two and a half hour sets. As the Boston crowd lustily booed this announcement, he allowed himself to be talked up to two hours before driving the crowd into a frenzy by turning auctioneer and asking “do I hear three?!”

Throughout the concert Dave kept up the sarcastic banter. Introducing the lead guitarist, he pointed out that he played lead guitar on only two songs – Dave clearly covering all the others – but was generous enough to allow that they were “really important songs.” They played fourteen more songs in their opening set, closing with a monster rendition of “All My Life” played on top of a stage floor lit blood red as Dave yelled into the microphone “And I’m done, done onto the next one!” The crowd was alive with the driving insistence of that song and at times the audience drowned out the band. The stage went black as the song ended and the audience vibrated with anticipation for the encore set, egged on by a back stage feed of Dave and Taylor holding up fingers for the number of songs that would be played in an entertaining good cop/bad cop routine.

Dave started the encore with an acoustic version of “Wheels” and some chatter about how the fans in Germany loved that song, biding his time before tapping into the crowd’s energy again, pulling them into a more intimate connection by sharing his thoughts, and promising to come back and play a tiny venue if the Boston crowd put up a better showing than the Germans. After “Wheels,” and seemingly happy with the audience participation, Dave then shared that he had learned he could make an audience do the wave with just his face. Sensing scepticism, “You don’t believe me?” Dave turned to crowd on the floor to front left of the stage and using just his face got the audience to do the wave. “See, I told you. Just my face.”

We cheered as he casually tuned his guitar, leaned into the mike, and with dripping disgust, chastised us, “Never do the fucking wave at a rock concert.” Just as that jibe was starting to register, just as the Garden was collectively drawing in their breath to respond, Dave grabbed their intent and bent it to his will, crushing the cacophony of what would have been boos and cheers and laughs and replacing it with an outpouring of jubilation as he yelled “I’ve got another confession to make!”

The Garden exploded. Exactly as I had witnessed on TV, Dave commanded the audience, only this time he took 19,000 people with him as he poured an amount of passion into his performance that you wouldn’t believe was possible on the last night of a year-long tour. I joined in, yelling the lyrics out at the top of my lungs, not wanting the concert to end, wanting to hear more songs that sent my heart racing, that made me raise my arms into the air, that kept me on my feet for two and a half hours.

Dave transitioned into “Times Like These” and was joined by the band. From there they played my favorite song off their new album, “Dear Rosemary,” morphed that into Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” and closed with “Everlong”, which made me marvel at Taylor Hawkins’ endurance as the Fighters charged through that song.

After the concert, my friends and I walk back to my car. The pre-concert rain has stopped and it’s surprisingly warm for a November night and I’m enjoying walking with the happy mob of concert goers as we disperse from the Garden. It’s nearly midnight, but I’m wide awake and I know from experience that I won’t be asleep before 2am. I’m buzzing with energy, every nerve ending in my body is singing, the concert had stripped away my concerns and obligations and fears. It had untethered me from those thoughts for an evening. It freed me to live in and enjoy that moment.

It’s not until I actually step into the elevator at the parking garage and press the button for the fourth floor that I remember the last time I was there. The memory freezes me for a moment, like bitterly cold air will do when you step outside and draw that first breath deep into your lungs, feeling it touch parts of your insides that are normally quiet and undisturbed, the unfamiliar sensations expanding your sense of self, and takes me back to that evening.

It was a bitingly cold January evening and I was leaving McCormick & Schmick’s. Holding onto my left arm is a beautiful woman. We’ve just had our second date and I had decided during dinner that I was going to kiss her for the first time that night.

I don’t remember if I decided before or after she ran her hand through my hair as she excused herself from the table. I do remember that I decided as she was checking a message from her babysitter (divorced parents understand the need to check the phone mid-date). She had turned to the side to reach into her purse to get her iPhone, pushing the hair on the left side of her face behind her ear and letting the hair on the right side of her face fall forward, framing the soft, freckled ivory of her profile with curly red, fiery glory. I was enthralled and I let my eyes linger longer than would have been comfortable had she not been distracted by the message on her phone.

Now she was walking close to me, her hand hooked through my elbow, her arm pressed up against the back of my arm, and my pulse quickened in anticipation as we entered the garage and paused to wait for the elevator. Two other couples entered the elevator with us. They pressed the button for the second floor, I pressed the button for the fourth and as the elevator began to rise I dropped my arm to lead her hand into mine and turned towards her, catching her bright blue eyes as the elevator slowed to a stop, her eyes are quizzical for a split second and then they sparkle and dance with excitement and affirmation.

As the doors opened and the other couples began to step out, I let go of her hand, moved my hand to the small of her back, and pulled her closer, slipping my other hand up and between her shoulders, feeling her hands and arms wrap around my back as I leaned down to press my lips against hers, beginning our first kiss before the doors even started to close for the elevator’s journey to the fourth floor, knowing that the couples departing the elevator had felt the energy between us, having heard one start to laugh and another question “Did you see…?” as the doors closed.

I brought her closer, layers of clothes and two winter jackets taking little away from the excitement of feeling her body press against mine for the first time. I watched her eyes as her face drew closer, she closed them and tilted her head to the side as our lips met. Tentatively at first, but then bolder, each of us responding to the small clues from the other. She hugged me closer, I parted my lips a fraction. She parted hers and kissed me more deeply. I moved my hand to the back of her neck, one of my fingers tracing just behind an ear, and she teased her tongue across my top lip. I responded in kind and the elevator stopped with that slight bump older elevators have, our first kiss having lasted two floors and maybe twelve seconds.

I pulled away as the cold air flooded into the elevator, buzzing with energy, all of my concerns and obligations and fears stripped away, alive only for this moment and completely focused on the beautiful woman in front of me, who’s squeezing my hand as we walk towards my car and what I’m sure will be our second kiss.

The elevator opens on the fourth floor, the same slight bump bringing me back into the present. Dave is a rock star; a superstar even. But he needed a six man band, a computerized, motorized, laser-ized lighting system, tens of thousands of watts of ear splitting amplification, dozens of roadies, at least five guitars by my count, 19,000 screaming fans and two and half hours to untether me from the foundations of my daily existence.

She did it with a look, an embrace, and one kiss in the time it took for an elevator to slowly climb twenty feet.