Musings on Downsizing, No. 1


Early EB special I wrote for
1991 municipal election coverage. EB special issue I worked on, and the first municipal election I covered for the paper.

Downsizing seems to be all the rage among people our age. It’s so popular, it might be classified as a sport or a game for seniors. Assuming someone could codify the rules, that is.

I’ve been told it’s all over the TV, too, but since we haven’t had cable for a decade or more, I am only going on hearsay for that. But the topic shows up now and then on the front cover of grocery-store checkout magazines, (along with headlines about glitterati of whom I’ve never heard), so perhaps it is a popular activity outside our age group, too.

As an inveterate book buyer, I’ve always resisted downsizing my books. However, a few times in my life I have succumbed to the madness and donated a dozen or two boxes of them to the local library. My library of chess books, those wonderful books for learning Egyptian hieroglyphs I never quite managed to master, histories and biographies I’ve read, Latin textbooks, illustrated coffee table books of dinosaurs; all sorts have been passed on. But like falling snow, they seem to build again into drifts across my shelves and soon spread to the floor. 

Huronia Sunday and EB issues
Sections from the Collingwood edition of the Huronia Sunday paper; a publication of the Enterprise-Bulletin I edited, designed, and wrote for. I kept them all.

This time, I’m more determined. I’ve already crated 15 boxes of books for donation or sale, and have at least ten or twelve more to go before I’ve cleared the piles from the floor. It’s hard because every book has to be looked at, opened, considered thoughtfully for enjoyment, relevance, longevity, and the inevitable question, “Will I ever re-read this?” Or with textbooks (like Latin) and technical manuals, “will I really learn this subject?”

I also take the time to update my list of books on when I uncover a title I’ve read that is making its journey into a box, destined for downsizing.

And that’s only the upstairs part of the project. The basement could be a set from an early Universal monster movie, you know: those dark, cluttered spaces full of boxes that haven’t been opened so long they have grown roots. I’ve got boxes that haven’t been opened or sorted in three decades. Downsizing is emotionally cathartic, and not for the faint-of-heart to tackle.

Some of the publications I wrote for.
Some of the publications I wrote for, mostly between 1980 and 1990.

I collected a copy of almost every publication I ever wrote for, some dating back to the late 1960s. I had every issue of the Huronia Sunday paper I edited, designed, and wrote for; and many issues from the Enterprise Bulletin I wrote for and later edited. Plus copies of computer, marketing, aviation, paintball, printing, wargame, gaming, military history magazines, and various newspapers I wrote for, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. There’s a forest worth of trees there.

And then there was the box of software manuals and technical guides I wrote in the 1980s for computers that are technological paleontology these days. Aside from me, who cares about this material? Nostalgia has a limited range and is not contagious. Boxes and boxes of archived material. The recycling bin opens wide to receive my treasures.

Atari 1200XL circuit board from the mid-late-1980s.
An Atari 1200XL circuit board. Why didn’t I keep the rest?

Getting rid of some of this stuff is tough, however. There is a huge nostalgia magnet pulling me to them. A veritable black hole of gravitational memories. These boxes contain whole chapters of my life. They have Meaning for me, with a capital ‘M’. But I have to ask myself: is the Meaning in the objects and what they represent, or in my memory of them? Does the Meaning vanish if the objects themselves are not present? If they are gone, am I not still the same person as if they were here?

Or, as Susan asks, “Are they just taking up shelf space under the pretense that you’ll get to them sometime in the undefined but distant future?” Translated: “Why are we keeping this junk?”

Having had cancer has made me rethink some things, like what makes up a life, and what material possessions matter and what is mere detritus. I don’t need to drag something from my basement to prove to anyone who I was or what I did. How much of it is merely an anchor for my stubborn refusal to sail into the calm waters of decluttering? So, with some prompting, I started going through the boxes. Down the rabbit hole I went.

For some reason I cannot recall, I kept the circuit board for an Atari 1200XL (photo above), dating from around 1985. Where the rest of it went, I haven’t a clue. I have a Logo language cartridge for the Atari, too.  And several Atari magazines. Atari computers and the world of their users, fans, and publishers were a big, collective factor in my life for a decade or more, what with writing about it, programming, gaming, conventions, and learning about everything. The circuit board is a sort of touchstone; a rune that marks my passage through that time. Maybe I’ll put this piece aside. It doesn’t age like paper.

Was I ever really this young?
Photograph of me taken for the back cover of my first book, but never used. Mid-late 1982.

Old computer magazines may be so outdated as to seem more like archeology than technology, but I smile every time I opened one to read about the Apple II, the Atari 800, the Commodore 64. And to remember my first PC: a TRS-80. And then the others: the Kayro, TI-99, Sinclair, Macintosh, Atari ST. To read my own monthly columns in Atari magazines just filled me with happy memories. But how many do I need to keep? One or two, perhaps, are all that’s necessary to kindle those memory embers into flames. The blue bin smiled.

I found the original manuscript for my book, Mapping the Atari, printed in lovely dot-matrix type back in early 1982. I even found the original contract with Compute! books to publish it, and a letter about the initial sales. The letter is signed by the scifi writer, Orson Scott Card, who was my editor at Compute! (whom I later met at a book signing at Bakka books in Toronto).

Just some of the software manuals I wrote in the 1980s.
Software manuals I wrote in the 1980s for Batteries Included.

Plus there are manuals I wrote for Batteries Included, a Canadian company that published software programs for the Atari, Commodore, and the early IBM computers. I also wrote the manual for B/Graph, a statistics program published by an independent firm, and, yes, I still have my copy of it in a grey binder. The discs for the programs, however, have long disappeared. I couldn’t find any manuals I wrote for Atari ST programs, however, and I did several of those. Are any of them worth keeping? Take a deep breath, say goodbye, then toss them away.

I found a manilla envelope with receipts and tax forms from 1985. That was the year we bought our first house. I had to stop and think about that life-changing event and how excited we were. And there were the banking records for the Domestic Ferret Association I ran back then. I paused to savour the memories of ferrets scampering around the house. But I binned it all.

Same with the responses I got from radio stations around the world when I listened to shortwave radio and sent them postcards to let them know I heard them. The QSL card signed by the director of the Syrian Broadcasting and Television Services was particularly poignant, given the subsequent history of that nation. I no longer have a shortwave radio, but in the decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I owned a few.

Moves magazine. How I enjoyed writing for that publication.
I wrote for Moves magazine for several years: it was a favourite for wargamers in the 1980s.

And then there are those Moves magazines in which I reviewed computer and board wargames reminded me of when that sort of gaming was my prime hobby and passion. My trips to New York to meet with the staff of Moves and Strategy & Tactics magazines, my dinners and drinks with Redmond Simonsen and others. Redmond, a smart, talented, witty man, became a close friend who even came to Canada to join us at our wedding celebrations. And I learned he died some years back. See what memories a magazine cover can spawn?

Napoleonic wargames; my favourite historical era for gaming.
I still have some wargames in the basement. And, yes, that’s the owner’s manual for a Pet Rock. I sold them at the game store when I worked there.

That made me remember my hours spent hunched over a map of Waterloo, or Gettysburg, the Ardennes, or the Russian front, moving little cardboard counters that represented armies, divisions, corps, platoons, calculating odds, rolling dice. The hours spent reading and memorizing rule books, the thrill of a new Avalon Hill, GDW, SPI, or Steve Jackson game coming to market. I still have a box with some of the wargames themselves, although there’s no one here to play them with (not that I can imagine many people would put so much effort into a game these days). 

A box of motorcycle brochures from shows and events when I rode my bike (early 1990s to about 2010 or so). Lots of Triumph catalogues and brochures (I owned four of the new Triumph bikes in that period), as well as Classic Motorcycle and other related magazines. Tossed, with a deep sigh of regret. 

So many pictures, some going back into the early 1970s.
Photographs, slides, and negatives.

I have a box of photographs dating back to the early 1970s. Pictures I took in my travels across Canada: St. John’s, the prairies, the badlands and Dinosaur National Park, Whitehorse, Dawson, Tuktoyaktuk, Saskatoon, Halifax.  Pictures of my bookstore in Toronto. Pictures of friends long since gone from my life, whose names I struggle to remember. Pictures of my trip to Israel, my first vacation in Mexico, of my summer working on Saltspring Island where I served beer in the only pub in Ganges. My days working in Banff, and a grand view of the Rockies seen from atop Sulphur Mountain. Wading in the Arctic Ocean. Playing guitar with friends. So many memories. I look at myself and struggle to remember I was that young. Photos I’ll keep.

My aspirations to write fiction are buried here.
A large box of novels, short stories, poems, and computer programs I wrote in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Along with my old notebooks on art and culture, they’re keepers, for now.

And there are the novels, short stories, and computer programs I wrote; some completed, some not: mystery, scifi, fantasy, humour, spy thrillers. Programs written in BASIC and dBase, although now I can hardly recall what they did back then. I even found a box of index cards for my references about the Cold War for a novel I was working on. This is my creative side frozen in time.

I still have the rejection letters from the few publishers I sent my finished copies to. A lesson in humility, I suppose. But writing has been in my blood for decades, and I enjoy the act itself. Perhaps something is worth salvaging and rewriting in that box. Surely my writing skills have improved since then. Or maybe not: it might be just an old man’s make-work project. For now, I’ll keep it all, at least until the rest is sorted.

I learned to speak some Hebrew before I went to Israel in the late 1970s.
Cards for learning the Hebrew alphabet.

There are other things: cables, cords, old computer mice, a joystick, power supplies for devices I can’t recall, a box of maps from everywhere in the world, none less than 20 or 30 years old. Road atlases for trips taken so long ago I can’t recall the routes that are marked on the roads. Cards explaining Hebrew letters when I was learning the language for my trip to Israel (should I keep them and vow to practice my reading skills? And when will I ever use them?). A dozen or more maps of Israel and Jerusalem from that trip are thrown into a bin for recycling, but only after I open each one, and look at it.

Postcards from places, unsent, but kept as reminders. Tourist guides, tickets, and bus schedules from other countries. Boxes that held phones, modems, routers, laptops, kept “just in case” they needed to be returned, but remained, forgotten when the items themselves were upgraded. Boxes from ukuleles shipped to me from around the world, kept in case I shipped them on later. Pens that no longer write, business cards collected over a lifetime. Matchbooks from restaurants we loved to frequent but closed years and years ago. Posters from events and shows I can’t recall attending.

Two of three go sets I have. The third has a board and is better..
Go stones; one set of glass, the other plastic.

There are two sets of go stones in the basement (plus a third upstairs with a board). I haven’t played go in decades, but they’re too valuable to simply toss away.  The upstairs set is quite beautiful. A chessboard made by Anri sits on a shelf; it’s now a collectible, I suppose, but for whom? I have a beautiful and expensive Staunton chess set and board, upstairs, too, but I haven’t played with it in more than a decade. Since my friend Bill died, I have no one to play go or chess with. Should I sell them? Donate them? To whom? The fate of so many things to consider.  If they go, will his memory dissipate without the touchstones they provide?

One thing I’ve learned is that while downsizing you should never utter some sentences, ask some questions, or make certain comments in the presence of your partner. Some things are best left unspoken while you work through the sorting of nostalgic relics in your own mind in case they open the proverbial cans of worms. Like these:

  1. Hey! Look at this… (starts a cascade process where both of you look at everything in a box while you give each piece its history)
  2. Do you remember when… (starts a memory pinball that hits other items and keeps colliding)
  3. Any idea when we got this?
  4. I didn’t know I’d kept this!
  5. I’ll put this aside to look through later. (Warning: procrastination alert!)
  6. Do you want to keep (insert item here)?
  7. Do you really want to keep it?
  8. Can’t we keep (insert item here) this for a little longer?
  9. How long have we had this?
  10. Was this yours or mine?
  11. Do you think I should hang onto this, just in case (insert improbable scenario here)?
  12. I sure had good times back then.
  13. He/she was my boy/girl friend before we met. I hardly remember them at all. I forgot I had it.
  14. No, I wasn’t trying to keep anything secret from you. I just didn’t think it mattered.
  15. My parents gave that to me (the nostalgic magnet strongly resists separation from parentally-passed-on items).
  16. I bet I can still wear this (or fit into this. Short answer: you can’t).
  17. I wonder whatever happened to (insert your choice of a person or persons, a missing piece, some related item, or some unrelated item)?
  18. I thought you put that down here. I didn’t.
  19. This might still work if I can find the rest of it.
  20. I didn’t realize that was your mother’s (or father’s) when I threw it out.
  21. Shouldn’t we open a bottle of wine to do this?
Scrooge meets Santa
Back in the mid-1990s, when I was editor of the Enterprise-Bulletin. I may still have that sweater, too.

It’s not an afternoon job or even a one-day job: downsizing properly takes weeks, mostly because it engages the nostalgia gland that emits a hormone to slow the body down while you look at everything, every piece of paper, every book, every item that has been stored, untouched in a box for decades. Neurons fire up to dredge memories from the benthic layers of your brain, and the leviathans of sentimentality rise from the deep.

Downsizing isn’t easy, or quick, at least not for me. It’ll take some time, during which chaos reigns and piles of books move around from to-be-sorted, to sorted, to boxed, to boxed-in-the-basement before they get moved outside to a new home. The recycling bin fills and sorting pauses until we can make a trip to the dump. Cups of tea are required. Wine is contemplated when the day stretches into late afternoon. The “Look at this” moments break the rhythm into fragments. Too many “Was I really that young?” and “Look at how cute you were” photographs to look at before consigning to the darkness.

It helps to take out a piece of something, a publication, or a photo, look lovingly on it for a while, then put it in a “we’ll see about this stuff later” pile. Then forget it for a day or a week. When you go back and dig it out from the pile, it has probably lost its nostalgic pull and can more easily be binned. Nostalgia, like familiarity, can breed a bit of contempt if engaged in too frequently.

I’ll write more about my progress in the future.

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One comment

  1. A few more pictures of Things Found While Downsizing:

    Some more software manuals I wrote for Batteries Includes, and two magazines I wrote for (one for paintball, the other was Ares, a scifi/fantasy game ‘zine from SPI that included a game in each issue like their S&T magazine):

    In the 1980s, I received catalogues and brochures, and bought maps from the CIA as part of my research in writing a spy novel. The mail carrier always looked at me oddly when they arrived:

    Original notes from a cooking course I took at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts, (late 1970s or early 1980s). The course was several weeks long and covered a wide range of foods and cooking techniques.

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