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Go ahead if you can do better; okay, you probably can

Tom Pantera

Tom Pantera
Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.
December 22
Managing editor
Extra Media, Inc.
Middle-aged, divorced, liberal; nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter. Pretty much a walking stereotype. By the way, many will deny it but people in Fargo do talk just like in the movie.


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DECEMBER 14, 2010 2:06PM

Personal archaeology

Rate: 2 Flag

I’m about to begin a new life and part of that is finally getting rid of the old one.

There is a storage garage in north Fargo that contains a lot of that old one.  Because I’m going to be living in graduate student housing -- an efficiency apartment -- I won’t have much storage room, so I’m pretty much chucking things wholesale.

A lot of that stuff has been in storage since I moved out of my old house four years ago.  Before that, it was in the basement.  Obviously, a lot of it hasn’t seen daylight in a while.

I also have keen memories of cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house after she moved into a smaller place.  She wasn’t exactly a hoarder, but she had the same kind of pack-rat tendencies I do.  The pile of to-be-pitched stuff on her boulevard ended up being about the size of Mount Ranier.  After that, my wife and I – mostly at my wife’s behest – started getting rid of a lot of things.  My wife, quite sensibly, said she didn’t want to burden the kids with that kind of chore if we died.

And after my divorce, I simplified my life considerably, possessions-wise.

Many years ago, a friend of mine accused me of living in the past.  It’s hard for me to admit, but up until relatively recently that’s been true.  I tend to brood not necessarily over old slights and pains – although there’s some of that – but it fascinates me to think about the arc of my life, how I got to where I am, and the forks that would have sent me off to some kind of alternate universe.

But in the last year or so, especially with my situation about to change so radically, the present and that future have taken on more urgency.   As Al Stewart says of living in the past, “the years run too short and the days too fast.”

And anyway, if you’re healthy, there comes a time when you have to surrender what was.

Doing the kind of personal archaeology one has to do at times like this has, of course, been interesting.

I’ve been surprised at how little bittersweetness there has been in letting go.  Maybe all those years spent thinking about what was have inured me to actually getting rid of it.  My kids also have some stuff in that storage garage, and I have a much more emotional reaction to stuff of theirs that I see.  Those years have gone really fast.

But as for my own stuff, it can go.  In fact, there’s a lot of it I’ve carted around for 30 years for reasons I don’t even know.  If you can tell me why I kept so many of my old college notebooks, I’d learn something.  I have an impressive collection of old National Lampoon magazines, which I really like, but I’ve practically memorized all of them by now.   And what in hell was I going to do with some of my childhood toys? (I will keep the G.I. Joe stuff and the View Master reels, because those were my favorites).  There are boxes and boxes of books, many of them unread.  Those are at least worth something from the used book store.

It gets to the point where I half-expect to open a box and find Jimmy Hoffa.

There are plenty of little mysteries in those boxes as well.  I’ve pulled out a piece of paper here and there that contained a reference to some long-forgotten inside joke; sometimes, I’m not even sure who gave me the piece of paper, which kind of ruins whatever humor it contains.  I guess you had to be there and even though I was, the limits of memory have faded it to blank white.

Of course, I’m not throwing out everything.  There’s that G.I. Joe; when I pick him up, I’m suddenly, briefly, 6 years old again.  There’s a box full of memorabilia from my time in Japan; that was perhaps the single most important experience of my life, in terms of my personal development, and I can’t part with those things.  There are certain touchstones that simply are too heavy to lift into a garbage can.

Still, I’m figuring I can get rid of enough so I can actually pack all of my remaining possessions into my car for the move.

There’s a certain freedom in all this.  I don’t know what my future will be; I think everything will turn out fine, but one never knows.  That’s part of the thrill of this whole thing, the thought that at my age, I’m still willing and able to roll the dice.  All those old books and magazines have been nice to have somewhere, but in the end, they’re a more-than-metaphorical anchor.

It’s not likely, but I suppose somewhere down the road, I’ll think of something from my past and then realize it got thrown away in the move.  Hopefully, I’ll be wise enough to just shrug my shoulders and move on to the next thought.  But then, I’ll have to forget the pack-rat’s credo: “You never know when you’ll need this.”

Well, let’s face it:  I’ll never need any of the stuff I’m throwing out.  In fact, I’ll never even really want it.  Anything I really want, much less need, I’m taking with me; the key is to not want too much.

Now that I think about it, maybe this whole exercise is the first real learning experience of grad school (other than having to relearn quadratic equations for the Graduate Record Exam and believe me, I’ve re-forgotten that).  And like all real learning, it feels good.  It’s heartening to know I can get rid of frankly useless things with so little real pain or regret.  Had I learned that 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have carted around so much paper and so many stale jokes.

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Boy can I identify with this post. Rated