Don’t Give Up on Montgomery Schools

This morning’s New York Times (I read the paper version, I know, I’m old) brought news of new research out of Stanford that should shape the way we think about what counts as a successful school district. The article linked above, which you should absolutely read, does a good job of breaking down rock star education researcher Sean Reardon’s new study on educational opportunities. Herein, I give you a brief summary of the study, because it’s very clever. This part is a little nerdy. Then I give you the good news. Because I feel like a lot of times when we talk about the Montgomery schools we are full of bad news. Finally, I give you the bad news. Because there’s some pretty bad news in this study. Then I open the floor for discussion, if anyone out there in Lost in Montgomery-land is still listening. I know it’s been a while since we’ve written.

So, first, what is this new study and why does it have me so excited? Two things, really. First, it’s really big. It looks at 45 million students in 11,000 school districts. That’s a lot of data. Second, it’s methodologically innovative. Generally, studies that look at how well schools are doing just look at average test scores. That’s how Alabama decides which schools will be called “failing” for its private school giveaway tax credit.

This study calculated average test scores in third grade, but then went a giant step further and calculated growth rates in test scores from grades 3-8 for twelve different cohorts of students. This is a measure of student improvement over five years, and it’s meant to take a closer look at what, compared to the entry baseline, schools are adding to a student’s experience. Think about it this way: if everything performed as normal, a student should grow five years’ worth of schooling in five years. If a school is excelling, a student could have a higher growth rate. If schools are underperforming, a student would get less than five years worth out of their five years of seat time.

If average test scores were a good measure of school performance, we’d expect growth rates to be correlated with average scores. The thing is that those two measures – growth rates and average test scores – turn out not to be correlated. Which means, in the first place, that we should not be using average test scores to identify so-called failing schools, as they are likely to be simple reflections of socioeconomic status. This kind of ranking fails to incentivize growth and, as Reardon argues, may drive parents into districts with higher socioeconomic status, increasing economic segregation (ahem, Pike Road).

Before we get to changes in test scores, let’s see how Montgomery’s average scores stack up nationally. Here’s where our third graders stand.

We’re ahead of Chicago (the big dot there) but still almost one year behind the national average. Here’s where our eighth graders stand.

We’re almost three years behind the national average now, while Chicago’s getting pretty close to average. So Montgomery students are falling behind, while Chicago’s seeing closer to average test scores. Here’s what the change in scores looks like:

And here’s how to read this chart (all charts from the NYT interactive I linked to in the first paragraph). Chicago students are getting about 6 years worth of test growth out of their five years of schooling – a pretty remarkable achievement. Montgomery students are only getting three years – putting us in the bottom 1% of school districts nationally.

But wait, you might be saying, I thought there was going to be some good news here. There is. This study’s findings contain a few things that should give us hope that MPS can be improved. First, it finds that socioeconomic status is not destiny. A relatively poor (81% free and reduced price lunch) and racially segregated school system (10% white) like Chicago’s can make big gains, even though (unlike Montgomery) it has a large number of English language learners (about 17%).

And it means that big increases in per-pupil spending (while good) aren’t necessary. The Saraland schools spend some of the least in Alabama (only $7,789 in 2016) but saw 4.8 years of growth after 5 years. By contrast, wealthy Mountain Brook spent $12,162 per pupil and saw 4.9 years of growth in the same period. That’s not a lot of return on investment. Montgomery only spends $8,420 per pupil, and Chicago’s $12,000 seems like a lot until you realize that a) the cost of living is a lot higher there, and b) that’s still less than Mountain Brook. Here’s one more chart I pulled showing how we stack up against nearby districts.So we may not need to raise property taxes to get better schools, which is good, because it’ll probably be a cold day in hell before that happens here. And we can stop scapegoating race and poverty, because districts like Chicago do just fine. All of which is good news. It gets us out of the mindset of things we can’t fix and put us into a place to consider the things we can fix. Which is good, because MPS is in serious trouble.

But, there’s still plenty of bad news here. Mostly the part where our students are only getting three years worth of education out of five years of seat time. That’s positively criminal, and it’s something we need to take very seriously. Those years in grades 3-8 sort you out for success or failure in high school, where tracking makes it difficult for students identified as underperforming to break out of the molds we put them into. These are critical times, and MPS is failing at its core duty. We need to be having serious and data-driven conversations about what it means to get students at grade level, and how to increase proven practices like teacher collaboration and principal autonomy. Otherwise we’re failing our children – and worse, our community.

Discussion is welcome in the comments section.

 

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The Shots

We’ve been here nine years now.

There are many landmarks and monuments in time, but one of them is the moment when we stopped calling the police after hearing gunshots. Before that point, we were diligent citizens, counting shots as best as we could, offering to speak to the officer that we assumed would be dispatched to the scene, noting the time of the shots and the direction from which the appeared to come. After that point? Just numbness, rolling over, trying to go back to sleep, a tiny prayer of thanksgiving that our house wasn’t hit by a stray bullet.

They almost always come when we’re in bed, but that doesn’t mean much because we’re in our late 30s, now our 40s, and we have full-time jobs, so we’re often in bed by 10 p.m. We’ve heard the shots as early as 9, once in a while during the day, two or three times while standing in the back yard, but mostly at midnight or – like tonight – at 3:30 a.m.

If the dog hears them, she’ll often let out a little growl, but she’s mostly joined our apathy, giving up on any reaction. Ears perk up, then she rolls over.

Sometimes I lay in bed with secret agent fantasies, like maybe one day I’ll get so experienced that I’ll be able to identify the kind of gun by how it sounds, the number of shots fired, the echo of the ballistic ringing. But I never learn anything substantive to add to this fantasy. Usually it’s just crack-crack-crack. Or sometimes crack-crack … crack-crack-crack. Then silence.

Then you can sit and wait for how long between the cracks and the sirens. Sometimes the sirens never come. I’d say it’s about half and half, maybe less than half the time that you hear a flicker of one, usually further away than the shots. Sometimes it’s five minutes, sometimes fifteen. Once in a while you hear the helicopter. There’s never any roaring motor of a high-speed chase, although sometimes I imagine one of those too, with people shooting from car to car as they flee the police.

Most often though, I imagine a social scenario about what led to the shooting. Maybe it was anger over something that happened today at a high school – someone was discovered talking to someone else’s girlfriend. A short burst of shots might be unidirectional, aimed at a house while the people inside were sleeping, just a warning message. Sometimes there’s return fire. Maybe a deal went bad.

The number and order of the shots can really help you sketch out a scenario. Bang-bang. Was there arguing before? Bang-bang-bang. Was that return fire, or perhaps a few more shots from the first gun? Time passes. Bang. Was that a shot at a retreating car? Did it take someone a moment to find their gun? Were their fingers fumbling and bloody by this point in the exchange, making it hard to pull the trigger?

You can sketch scenarios about the quiet aftermath too. Maybe there is imperceptible yelling. Maybe there’s a baby crying. Maybe someone is alone, feeling the life slowly leaking out of them. Maybe the last thing they hear is some stupid TV show.

I’ve only seen a dead body once, at a gas station near our house. Ever since, we’ve called it The Murder Chevron. It was a guy laying face down in the parking lot while I waited at a red light after a super early morning airport run. I knew he was dead as soon as I saw him, and I read about the killing in the newspaper the next day. It felt really meaningful, seeing this guy’s body. The newspaper said he was from Selma, and they think it was about drugs and money. I used to know his name, but I forgot it.

I’ve never gotten gas at the Murder Chevron, even though it’s pretty close to my house.

Usually there’s nothing in the newspaper about the gunshots, which really reinforces the idea that there are two cities called Montgomery. In one, people shoot guns in the middle of the night (rarely in celebration or target practice, probably mostly at other human beings). In the other, the Chamber of Commerce is having some kind of event, or someone is raising money for some disease.

If we ever do see something the next day about the gunshots, we always feel a little connected to it. The sound of them unites everyone who is within hearing distance. We may not know the heart-racing exhilaration of having been the shooters, nor the pure terror of having been the targets, but we’re still witnesses, whether we roll over and go back to sleep or not.

It’s always a little surprising how far the sounds of gunshots will carry. At 2 a.m., the crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack sounds pretty close, but you see in the paper the address and you’re always a little surprised that you could hear it from inside your house from several blocks away. Guns are loud. Our city’s nights are usually so quiet.

The other thing about seeing it in the paper or on the TV is that you start to get names, which really help you sketch out your little imagined scenarios. But those names fade, and you’re never at the funeral, never feel the loss of a newly-empty bedroom, or the pain of seeing someone who can’t really walk anymore because there’s a bullet in their hip. It’s just part of the fabric here, something that would freak out some European town for months, but is just part of the cheap cost of life here.

Only once were the shots really close, but they were really, really close. They were right across the street, and I’ve never been awakened by anything quite like that. It was a drive-by. It was more of a CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK and underneath it were a few pop-pop-pops. My stupid movie-trained-never-been-in- war brain told me that someone was emptying an automatic (maybe an AK from the clanking sounds of the bolt) while someone else fired a few shots from a pistol.

Nobody died.

The street was littered with shell casings, which the police came and collected. They said “the grandma” had been hit in the head but was OK. They said it was a domestic violence thing, where the dude was mad about something or other and wanted to send a message to his girlfriend, ended up hitting her grandma by accident, and punching holes in the windows of the nice little house across the street from ours. Our neighbor, who was a cop at the time, said later that he asked about the case and said that the girl didn’t want to press charges against the guy, even though she knew it was him. So I guess nobody got arrested, and those people moved away shortly thereafter, and we were glad.

That was several years ago, though, and nothing that dramatic has happened close to us since. Mostly it’s several blocks over. Mostly we never learn anything about what happens. They’re just the gunshots – punctuation marks in the night, waking you up, reminding you of the violent world just around the corner, of the fragility of life, of the ever-presence of firearms.

We have guns too.

The imagination does not confine itself in the way that residential poverty segregates our neighborhood from the ones giving birth to all of the gunshots. No, the imagination runs wild, and I imagine someone trying to kick in our front door, a different kind of pow-pow-pow, one that the dog would not ignore. And I imagine pulling out the gun and trying amid panic to squeeze off a few shots, at least to let the intruder know that this home invasion would involve threat to life and limb. And maybe that’s what they’re thinking in those other neighborhoods too. They just want to protect themselves and their property. They just want to be safe and sleep at night.

State Capitals Recycling

Alaska – Juneau – Has curbside pickup and multiple dropoff centers

Arizona – Phoenix – multiple kinds of curbside pickup and the city of Phoenix has a goal to divert 40 percent of trash from the landfill by 2020; and to achieve zero waste by the year 2050.

Arkansas – Little Rock – has curbside recycling

California – Sacramento – has curbside recycling

Colorado – Denver – you don’t even have to ask

Connecticut – Hartford – small city, free curbside pickup

Delaware – Dover – website sucks, but they offer recycling

Florida – Tallahassee – Yes. Garbage and recycling containers can be placed at the curb (no earlier than) the day before your scheduled pickup and need to be returned to the storage area near your home no later than the day following your service.

Georgia – Atlanta – curbside in a cart

Hawaii – Honolulu – mobile and permanent dropoff centers

Idaho – Boise – they pick it up, nice “CurbIt” campaign and branding

Illinois – Springfield – Abraham Lincoln does it personally. Just kidding. Curbside, but they charge for it. “Residents living in single family homes of 3 units or less in addition to residents who live in multi-unit buildings may now obtain recycling service on site from their waste hauler at the monthly rate of $3 per unit.”

Indiana – Indianapolis – curbside and drop-off

Iowa – Des Moines – Another “Curb It!” program covering municipal Des Moines and Central Iowa curbside pickup.

Kansas – Topeka – The county does it. Forty tons a day.

Kentucky – Frankfort – Even Franklin. “Franklin County incurs the cost of residential curbside trash and recycling collection. This service is provided by Legacy Carting.”

Louisiana – Baton Rouge – Yes. And it’s surprisingly robust.

Maine – Augusta – Their website is ironically itself rubbish. Appears they stopped curbside recycling pickup on May 1, 2017. But there are still four city-maintained drop-off sites.

Maryland – Annapolis – It is MANDATORY.

Massachusetts – Boston – “You can mix recyclable materials together and place them on the curb outside of your home on your recycling day.” Great website.

Michigan – Lansing – Curbside. Funded by a fee. With virtual tour of their MRF.

Minnesota – St. Paul – Weekly collection. As if you had to ask.

Mississippi – Jackson – Even Jackson has curbside. Mississippi.

Missouri – Jefferson City – Yes.

Montana – Helena – Even Helena.

Nebraska – Lincoln – Seems like the city provides 23 drop-off sites and a bunch of companies offer curbside pickup. Doesn’t seem efficient to have a bunch of companies competing to do the pickup.

Nevada – Carson City – Curbside recycling is available through Waste Management. They can be reached at (775) 882-3380.

New Hampshire – Concord – Live Free or Die … and curbside recycle.

New Jersey – Trenton – Even this place has it.

New Mexico – Santa Fe – This is hilarious and on-point. Of course they have rolling curbside.

New York – Albany – Manages one of the region’s largest single stream recycling programs with a 50.1% diversion rate.

North Carolina – Raleigh – Raleigh’s Solid Waste Services launched its first downtown recycling program in 2006. Today more than 130 downtown businesses recycle materials with Solid Waste Services. The City’s residential curbside recycling program began as a pilot program in 1989.

North Dakota – Bismarck – Even North Dakota. Curbside.

Ohio – Columbus – Yes. RecyColumbus is really cool.

Oklahoma – Oklahoma City – They have Russell Westbrook. And curbside recycling bin pickup.

Oregon – Salem – Duh.

Pennsylvania – Harrisburg – Yes. And they want to do more.

Rhode Island – Providence – Cubrside bins in the capital of the nation’s smallest state.

South Carolina – Columbia – Strange wizard. They have curbside bins.

South Dakota – Pierre – Both Dakotas have curbside recycling in their capital cities.

Tennessee – Nashville – Curbside pickup and a well-designed site.

Texas – Austin – Duh.

Utah – Salt Lake City – Bins and drop-offs and landfill tours.

Vermont – Montpelier – Recycleables have been banned from the landfill in Vermont since July 1, 2015 as part of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law. So … yeah.

Virginia – Richmond – Yes. Curbside covering 13 cities.

Washington – Olympia – Obviously. Curbside carts.

West Virginia – Charleston – Even West Virginia’s capital. Curbside.

Wisconsin – Madison – They publish a “Recyclopedia.” So, obviously.

Wyoming – Cheyenne – curbside recycling program was first implemented as a pilot program in January 2008. Service was first provided to 1500 residents in the Sun Valley area. The results were extremely favorable and city-wide recycling began in August 2010.

That means that we are the only state capital with no program. This is the link on the city-run site, that says that you can drive to one of two sites in the city to leave your recyclable materials with one of two private for-profit entities. So, just let those jugs and bottles pile up in your house for the weeks at a time that it will take you to have the time to drive to one of the two locations in this city that can recycle. We are the only state capital in this entire nation that is this pathetic at recycling. The only one. Every single other capital city has figured something out, whether they are larger than us, smaller than us, richer than us, or poorer than us. Everybody has figured it out except for us, and we have a giant empty shuttered recycling plant that was a bad idea before it was ever built and we just keep pumping our landfills more and more full every single day that goes by. All links current as of early May 2017.

Rock You Like a High Energy Folk Rock Hurricane: Free Magazine Review, RSVP Mar/Apr 2017

As the soon-to-be-butchered Ghost in the Shell points out (1), human memory is particularly fickle and ephemeral. It may make us who we are; at the same time, its existence may mask a deeper epistemological conflict. We certainly don’t get to choose what sticks in our memory. As we get older, this becomes more and more frightening. We try and hold on to things like anniversary dates, first kisses, an especially significant bit of moonlight. Sometimes we find that there are things in our minds we’d rather dispense with: distasteful happenings, random detritus. And then there are the bits we love, the odds and ends that we haven’t memorized on purpose but that have stuck with you for decades, each time seeming fresh and new. Such a memory, for me, is Sideshow Bob’s remark about air shows.

What kind of country fried rube indeed? I spent my youth at air shows, the easily impressed daughter of a Navy pilot. I remember that the SR-71 Blackbird was one of my earliest ideals of beauty. I saw multi million dollar planes come close enough to touch, risking in-flight collisions with colluded grace. Their force and variety impressed me. Sometimes I even got to sit in the cabin.

Now that I’m an Alabamian (going on a decade, sans buzz cut) I ask myself what I once thought was so great about these dangerous displays of government might. I can see my childhood wonder, my love of a spectacle, the gee whiz-ness of it all. What I can’t see is appreciating them as an adult. They’re incredibly loud and extraordinarily wasteful. They’re basically in-person recruiting pitches that don’t mention the free college, citizenship and health benefits (2). That’s not even to talk about the ways that they’re basically sound bombs designed to quiesce the working class so they don’t think about troublesome things like military spending. No need to look at that 10% budget increase, people – over here these two planes that your taxes pay for doing this all the time are maybe going to crash into each other! And there will be colored smoke!

Which might as well be the cover of RSVP’s new edition – a whiff of colored smoke. That would be nicer to look at than the existing jet plane promotional picture (3). It would have the added benefit of accurate advertising for the inside matter – puffs of colored smoke, largely punctuated by the occasional brute force reminder of what counts for some people as “fun.” But it’s the 70th birthday of the U.S. Air Force, an institution created to wipe humanity off the planet with nuclear weapons, and the show’s themed “Heritage to Horizon: A Century of Airpower since WWI,” and it features both the Thunderbirds and some trick French outfit, and it’s at Maxwell next month, so that pretty much guarantees that local journalistic bastion RSVP is going to feature the event on their cover.

Once upon a time we used to write a lot of free magazine reviews (4). We’d recently moved to town and were curious about the representations made by these magazines. Who paid for their journey into our hands? Who advertised within? What stories did the advertorialists tell about Montgomery and its denizens? Over time, the endless arrays of glossies beat us into submission. There were always new profiles to read, fresh rankings of orthopedic surgeons, of the moment photo shoots of events by the Mystic Krewe of whatever having their Thing White People Like in a Renaissance conference room dressed up to look like Undersea Paradise or what have you. From the beginning, these stories did not match up with our lived experience of the place. As we stayed longer, our skepticism metastasized from giggles to eye-averting shame. There came a point where, as the kids say, we couldn’t even.

But all good things deserve to be rescued from memory’s fickle tar pits, so we’re going to give this another try. Welcome back, readers, to Lost in Montgomery’s Free Magazine Review.

What’s it called? Montgomery RSVP: The River Region Guide for All Things Social. Notice the “all” in there – a bold claim, a “look no further” attitude. If you click that link above, you’ll see that we have reviewed RSVP plenty of times, and said enough about them to ensure that we’ll never, ever make “The List.”

What is it? This is not our first rodeo (but March 16-18 could be yours, as the events calendar informs us that the 60th Annual Southeastern Livestock Exposition Rodeo is coming to town: “Grab your cowboy boots and hat”). Indeed. So we know that RSVP isn’t just a publishing house. It’s also (and largely) an event planning firm whose lady employees pose every two months for some kind of photo of them being fashion-forward. This photo is usually attached to the “from the GIRLS” column that introduces each issue. The editor’s name is Peyton Flowers, a name that somehow could not be more perfect if a thousand Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates slaved away on the matter for a thousand years on a thousand MacBook Airs. Peyton is evidently about to give birth. If you did not know this from the column, it might make you wonder why her co-workers were each touching her belly, besides to point out its impeccable drape in a bold printed tunic.

Where’d we find it? Where do you not find RSVP? Have you ever played that game Plague, Inc.? The goal is to engineer a virus that will kill all of humanity before a cure can be found. One winning strategy is to infect as close to 100% of the population before you begin to manifest deadly symptoms. This works because you (the virus) get taken for granted, just another thing to put up with, no need to worry about a cure. And then one day you (again, the virus) evolve the ability to dissolve organs through aspiration and it’s all over. Puny humans. About all we can say for sure is that RSVP Magazine has not yet evolved the ability to transmit by air.

What’s the deal? Oh, Montgomery, you’re so much more sophisticated than you seem – at least according to the folks at RSVP. Their vendors have hashtags and muted colors. Their models have no pores, and you don’t need to either, because they’re offering a 15% discount on something horrifyingly called a “chemical peel.” Sometimes their ads have an illegible black font on dark purple background, but maybe they’re just sophisticated like that. Mostly, RSVP’s advertisers are betting that their readers have pets (check), wear makeup (nope) and are looking for a home – preferably of new construction (double nope). And yet, we read. Like a moth to the flame, we read.

What sections do they have? Mostly, if we’re honest, when we read RSVP we want to see who made The List. The List is RSVP’s bi-monthly curated compendium of the intentionally integrated, “young” and well-dressed. These folks may be artists, chefs, or account executives. They may be especially well-rounded nurse practitioners. What unites people in The List is their willingness to pose in affordable-to-reach clothing against some kind of reclaimed wood or slate background. In flattering light. This month, it’s slate. And we’ve got people who are passionate about their “fur babies,” CrossFit, and God, perhaps in that order, perhaps not. Some are pretty in pink, others have a kind of Vampirella thing going on. What’s important is not who they are, but what The List says about Montgomery. It says that we’re a place with dessert menus, a choice of gyms, modern couches and upbeat positivity-drenched consumerism civic pride. And air shows.

What’s interesting in this issue? The best part of this issue is the list of coming attractions (here titled “what? when? where?” as if by some kind of dementia victim). Beginning on page 74, the listing promises that we can “BE IN THE KNOW … AND IN THE NOW” if we follow these listings and sign up online to RSVP’s own newsletter, “full of weekly SPECIALS, PROMOTIONS, LIVE MUSIC and more!” Let us leave alone for a moment, because we are feeling especially generous, the matter of the erratic all-caps behavior (see also: Facebook conversations with screaming Libertarian/racist family members). This will allow us to focus on the substance of the matter – who and what will light up our local experience across the next two months? Among what manner of delights shall we choose? However shall we plan our busy social calendar?

A surprising number of upcoming events involve cruises on the Harriott II – a vessel whose dining room our MML correspondent Jesseca Cornelson once described as “straight out of The Shining.” Then there are the ASF and Cloverdale Playhouse productions. Some seem cool – we are definitely in for The Tempest and The Crucible, the latter of which we are certain will only be about Salem and will have no bearing at all on contemporary world events. Afterward, we’re left with a number of one offs whose collective impact is to make our poor city seem about like the air show lover that it is. There’s trivia at heavy RSVP advertiser Blackfinn Ameripub. Plus side: Winner gets a $50 gift card. Minus side: You have to go to Blackfinn. Not gifted with either a knowledge of the arcane or especially defined cheekbones? Doug’s 2 has you covered with Contouring 101 ($55, March 15 & 22). Maybe if you go the first night (and don’t wash), your face will still look super-narrow when you go see a culture warrior, “Tater Salad” Ron White, perform at the MPAC the following evening.

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, so newspapers everywhere are offering hot takes on corned beef, and bartenders everywhere are preparing for amateur night (unless they are, wisely, offering “Saint Practice’s Night” at other times). RSVP recommends that you go to “Dinner with Sugarcane Jane” at the Capitol City Club. It’s at 6:30: “Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with dinner and a show. You can expect an incredible performance with this high-energy husband-and-wife folk rock duo while enjoying a five-course meal…” The meal is $100 for non-members, $85 for members. Remember that value is not the only way to represent the worth of your soul.

If that isn’t dark enough for you, Blackfinn will reveal the winner of its “Best Leprechaun” contest at midnight. See, someday your prince will come.

But wait. There’s more. This is spring, the end of accursed Daylight Savings Time, the rebirth of Our Lord, the rolling back of the rock to expose … commodities values! That’s right, MPAC will host “The Price is Right! Stage Show” on March 24. We assume that either Drew Carey or his contractually obligated genetic clone will be there to help your peers guess the market price of a box of detergent. To attend this spectacle, you’ll pay $35 to $55. And then, of course, the piece de resistance – the arrival of the Easter Bunny. Leaving alone the weirdest of weird brand synergy between “I just died” Jesus and “I hid someone’s eggs” Bunny, can we all marvel for a minute that the rabbit’s arrival will be on ice? At the mall? With escorts from the Eastdale Mall “Teen Team?” If it seems like this is a setup for the next Friday the 13th movie, you can just put your pen away slowly – we’re wayyyy ahead of you (5).

Reader, the buffet stretches forth endlessly. You’ve got a Jamboree at Faulkner, a Troy Festival, a tennis tournament for the almost-dead … so much to look forward to, and that’s not even till the temperatures top 90. So for this and so much more, we salute RSVP. Without you, we’d never suspect exactly how banal active our beloved community could be.


Endnotes

(1) Save your time; the sequel isn’t really worth it, even though the animation is stunning. The characters spend a bunch of time saying quotations to each other on the order of “The ape wandering through the forest must step on many leaves.”

(2) Lest you say that we are in some way “anti-military,” consider that both of us have parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents who served in the military. Also maybe consider why being anti-air show might make someone anti-military, unless that makes your brain hurt too hard. In which case, probably go ahead and delete your comment.

(3) And for those who are going to pursue writing their comment anyway, I’ll just say that the Blue Angels are better than the Thunderbirds anyway. This is dogma. I was raised to believe this in the same way that some people are raised to believe that God made the world in seven days. Neither idea may be correct, but both are largely unfalsifiable as matters of belief.

(4) Okay, maybe “a lot” is a wild overestimation. We wrote some. That’s better than most people did.

(5) Easter Bunny no longer played by Sean Spicer.

Lost in Montgomery, Literally – Airport Version

Have you ever left something on an airplane?

Air travel can be hectic, sometimes confusing and harried, with flights delayed and high levels of fatigue. Although experienced travelers, this was our first time getting off the plane without getting one of our bags from the overhead compartment. But surely this sort of thing happens all the time. Right? A phone in the seatback pouch? A wedding ring? A coat forgotten in an overhead bin? Some paperwork from your job, left in there with the Skymall catalogue?

Ours was a paper shopping bag from Powell’s Books, full of treasures that we had acquired on New Year’s Day in Portland’s most famous bookstore. We also had acquired a few other books from Portland’s super-cool Cameron’s Books and Magazines. Seriously, if you are ever in Portland, do NOT miss that place. Our flight from Oregon brought us home to Montgomery, but first we had to go through Atlanta. Our precious books made it to Atlanta with us, and we purchased a pair of pants from the airport Brooks Brothers (the sale was too good to pass up) and we stuffed those into the bag with our books.

Our flight to Montgomery from Atlanta was delayed four to five hours. We were tired from New Year’s Eve and cross country travel. Although our bag of books went into the overhead, we got off the plane in Montgomery without it. We even left the airport without it. We realized what happened as soon as we pulled into our driveway, sometime around midnight.

If you’ve ever been to the Montgomery Regional Airport at 11 p.m. or midnight, you know that it’s pretty shut down. When there are no longer any outgoing flights scheduled, the last arriving flights are greeted by a complete skeleton crew. Exhausted, we decided that our bag would have certainly been found by the people cleaning the airplane, and decided to contact the airport first thing in the morning. Huge mistake. Huge.

The next morning, the Delta desk in Montgomery said that the plane had already returned to Atlanta, where it was cleaned. The Delta rep in Montgomery said that although they didn’t clean the plane until it returned to Atlanta, that there was no Powell’s bag in the lost and found in Montgomery. He was confident that the bag would have been discovered in the plane’s overhead compartment in Atlanta, and would be placed in a lost and found there. Here’s where the story begins to fall apart.

We were given a phone number for Delta’s lost and found in Atlanta, and encouraged to file an online claim for a lost item. We did that. Keep in mind, losing a personal item on the airplane is not the same as losing a checked piece of luggage. They track your checked bags with a number issued when you get your boarding pass. Lost carry-on items are given a claim number after the fact. This number makes it seem like Delta is paying attention to your bag. Though we’ve always been able to locate our checked bags with Delta, our experience with our lost carry-on makes it clear that they’ve got a ways to go before their system for finding lost bags passes even a basic muster.

A few questions we’ve been asked since we lost our bag:

Why did you leave the bag on the plane? A rare lapse in judgment. We’d been traveling for more than 15 hours when we finally got on our flight to Montgomery, itself delayed by more than 4 hours. We were pretty fried, and we’re lucky we remembered to grab our coats.

Couldn’t a fellow passenger have stolen the bag from the overhead compartment after you got off the plane? Yes. Technically that’s possible. But we were close to the back of the plane, so it’s unlikely.

Couldn’t the cleaning crew have seen the bag up there and stolen it? Yes. Technically that’s possible too. At this point we should mention again that there was nothing of real value in the bag, which looked like a beaten-up paper sack of books.

If you are one of those well-regarded high-status frequent travelers, does Delta give you any better customer service? Evidently not. One of us has had high Medallion status for years, and conversations mentioning this fact on Twitter with Delta have gotten us nowhere. Well, that is, they’ve gotten us the number for Hartsfield’s lost and found office. Where nobody ever answers the phone.

Would someone really steal a bag that contained a few worthless pulp paperbacks about UFOs, a bunch of critically-acclaimed but invaluable volumes of modern fiction, and some old issues of Doctor Strange comic books, plus a pair of pants that don’t fit? Seems unlikely. I mean, it’s not like we left a Rolex or iPhone on the plane. This paper shopping bag from Powell’s ought to have held minimal appeal for unscrupulous opportunists. This is why we think that the bag was probably turned in at some kind of “lost property” desk within the greater Delta hierarchy.

What’s going to happen next? One of us is going to be flying through Atlanta this week. She’s going to see if it’s possible to get access to what we imagine is a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style room of lost personal property. This may not work, but it’s worth a try. Since we’ve already left messages at all of the relevant numbers and hit up Delta repeatedly on social media, we’ve not got many options left.

Here’s the cold reality, folks: If you leave something on a plane, you don’t have a chance of getting it back. People leave TONS of stuff on airplanes all the time, and it’s clear that Delta (at least) does not seem to care at all about getting these things back to their owners. If they did, they’d have our paper bag full of books (and pants). We didn’t leave something nondescript like a blue coat, a cell phone, or key ring. We left a paper bag with a very specific logo on it. We can describe all of the contents. We were the last flight into ATL from Montgomery that night, so we know the flight was cleaned before people got back onto the plane. We are pretty sure that nobody would have let the plane take off again with a mysterious paper bag on board. Ergo, our bag is somewhere at Hartsfield. But there is nobody at Delta who’s willing to take our case or even speak to us as humans about this matter.

The lesson? Don’t leave anything on the plane. You’ll probably never see it again. And even if you’ve got a decade of Delta loyalty, they’ll probably treat you just like everybody else.

Notes From the Waste Stream #10: Doha Marriott Stationary

Do you remember what it was like to write a letter? Not a thank you card (not that people write those any more) or one of those all-purpose family update Christmas card enclosures, or even a postcard, but a real letter? Do you remember how excited you were once to receive letters, maybe needing to decipher handwriting, re-reading for complex meanings, stowing it carefully in the envelope for later? Did you ever write or receive a letter on onion-skin air mail stationary, the kind that folded up to make its own envelope? Did you ever re-write a letter to make it seem more spontaneously brilliant or heartfelt, to make sure the handwriting was lucid, dreaming all the while of the response you might get?

Do you remember how good it feels to have a pen in your hand? The right kind of pen, with the right kind of ink flow and point size, pressed against the right kind of paper that gives just enough but not so much that your hand slides and your ink runs? When was the last time you wrote more than just signing your name?

I have drawers full of letters in my home. Someday I will read through the inherited letters between my parents and paternal grandparents as I try to understand their relationship and my family history. For now, those stay tucked away. The trauma of loss is still too strong to pull those out and remain unscathed. I have other letters, though, that I read from time to time that make me unreasonably happy. What I like best about them, weirdly, is their lack of context. They are often responding to a letter of mine that I may never see again – a missing partner, possibly lost to time or trash. Though I like to think that the kinds of people I write to are the kind that know better than to throw away correspondence, my view of human nature isn’t quite that rosy.

Let me just say that an email is not the same as a letter. Sure, there’s some analog nostalgia at play when I make such a claim – emails, after all, can be archived and called up in a flash, sent in mere seconds, easily sorted by author and date, and don’t take up much physical space in your house. An email is easy to send – something that cuts both ways. A letter requires more thought. Not just the sitting down to write, but the addressing of an envelope, the finding of a stamp, the waiting days to know of receipt, the uncertainty (despite the miracle of the U.S. Postal Service) of receipt. And while you may be precious about the typeface of your email, the reality is that all typed correspondence is impersonal when compared to the idiosyncrasies that handwriting allows. When I get hurried (or have a glass or two of wine), my handwriting flattens like a dangerous EKG signal. Other times, when I am particularly thoughtful, the vowels are fully formed and the consonants spike appropriately. If I am confused, sometimes my writing takes on a peculiar backwards slant, mirroring the work of my mind to reach back into the morass of events and pull them gently forward. It has rarely been described as “legible.”

As a child, I refused all attempts to train me to hold my pen in a proper manner. This means that the fourth finger on my right hand has a permanent callous and a fingernail bent with a vertical crease up the middle from four decades of use. My cursive has never been up to par, but is still for my money vastly more efficient than printing – usually when I print, it’s in reaction to anger or frustration.

Little Notebooks

Last week my husband asked for a little notebook. He was embarking on a new writing project and wanted something dedicated for that purpose. When I said I didn’t know where one might be, he said: “Surely, if there’s anything this house has in surplus, it’s little useless notebooks.” This is a true observation. When you write as much as I do – pithy observations, observations that seemed pithy at the time, character studies, emblems of anger, totems of love, short story ideas already doomed to obsolescence – you need many small notebooks.

Some years ago I was invited to interview a college professor who had recently published a collection of the writings kept in the many hundreds of tiny notebooks that Robert Frost used. They’re held in the collection of Dartmouth College’s excellent library, and they were full of incomprehensible scrawls, recursive notations, grocery lists, and all the things that I, an unknown aspiring author, keeps in my notebooks. I’ll admit that I was a little ego-boosted by the whole affair. Who among us, the society of keepers of little notebooks, doesn’t secretly fantasize that our scrawlings will one day be decoded and carefully considered like the Talmud? In the meantime, we write. We write to ourselves, and occasionally (not as often as we should), we write to others.

Writing from hotels

This used to be something I did. I’d check into a hotel, find the stationary, and dash off a letter to a loved one. I enjoyed the process of mailing, of seeing if the front desk had a stamp, of watching the letter go into a pile and hoping it made the destination unscathed. This is especially fun when writing from abroad. In the first place, there are the foreign stamps – made even more foreign by the fact that you don’t know how much money actually a stamp costs. As a child, I loved foreign stamps. I imagined their far-off provenance, steamed them off envelopes and kept them for a fantastic future increase in value. When my father died, I found out that he was the same way. I inherited volumes of worthless stamps from countries I’ve never heard of, meticulously kept as a well-licked atlas of the world. I can’t bear to get rid of them, even though I’ve been told that philately’s heyday is long past.

These days I don’t do this much anymore, especially not from domestic hotels. The front desk staff seem genuinely confused at the prospect of actual mail, rarely have a stamp, and in any case there’s not stationary available in the kind of cheaper hotels I stay in these days. But the other day I found some old stationary and decided to use it.

img_2876When I first moved to Montgomery, there was a period of a few years when I was going back and forth from the Middle East pretty regularly. Usually I was spending a week or two in Doha – the capitol of Qatar. I flew over Iran! I was there when we bombed Libya, something that caused considerable anxiety among my friends and family. I learned to register with the Embassy, to pay attention to travel alerts, even as I never felt unsafe for a single minute while in-country. Except in taxis. Doha driving makes New York seem like Dothan.

When you’re so far away, your clock gets flipped. You are 12 hours apart from your loved ones, and it gets hard to stay in touch – particularly when you are working 12 hour days. Letters become your lifeline, even when you learn that usually you arrive home before the letter takes its sweet time getting to Montgomery. There’s still a feeling of connectedness that comes from setting pen to paper, addressing the person you love thousands of miles away. You can, if you do it right, come to feel like you are speaking to them directly. Skype can’t substitute for this kind of intimacy. Neither, if you really think about it, can email. You can read someone’s heart in a letter. If you know them well enough, you can decode their cursive cadences into a context for the words on paper that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Even if the letter arrives after you are safely tucked in bed and sleeping off an epic jet lag, it still speaks to the sense of distance and longing, to the particular distance that can sit between but not separate two people who love each other to distraction.

When you write from hotels, you either do it in the bar or your room. Writing from the bar will allow you to offer a series of observations; it gives a sense of local flavor and lets you riff on the circumstances and cast of characters around you. You will describe the people, their dress, the music, the menu, your feelings at being surrounded by experiences that your loved one may never share. Writing from your room draws you deeper into yourself. It makes you think of all the times before you’ve set pen to paper. If the room is quiet and sheathed against sunrise (the better to help your jet lag), you may lapse into a meditative state, feeling as if the person is right there with you, as if they could touch your neck as you hunch over the ergonomically incorrect writing desk that even the nicest hotels have on offer. I have written letters both ways and never regretted my approach.

The point is to seize the words inside of you and make them count. The point is to bring your interior conversation out into the light and set it down for someone else to examine, with only the filter of cursive and time. The point is not to show how you are in love; the point is to be in love, at that moment, and to craft the words that reflect your feelings without the interfering filters of maudlin, of precision, of preciousness, of reserve.

I found this stationary today in a forgotten drawer. It’s not a tiny notebook, but it might as well be – it’s a blank page full of promise, a love letter waiting to be written, the unfilled ledger of my heart. I am traveling this week, and have determined to resume my custom of writing from hotels. This time, I’ll bring my own stamp.

Notes From the Waste Stream #9: Still Life

A few months ago I spent some time with a baby. It got me thinking about a painting in my house. The baby is a six week old lump, eyes dilated, warm and deboned, whose major skills seemed to be sleeping, eating and pooping. Roughly in that order. After noting her smell (powdery), her manner (snuggly) and her affect (oblivious), I started thinking: What will she remember of her life? What will her parents be to her? What will she do with all the stuff her parents own? I know that most people do not have such morbid thoughts when holding a baby.

The Painting

Sometimes I write about our relationships with the things we own. This means that many, many people have suggested that I read Marie Kondo. In case you haven’t, you’re supposed to get rid of things that do not “spark joy.” My inner economist likes that her approach deals with loss aversion (we are more attached to what we have lost than what we do not yet have – see also: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) by shifting presumption towards disposal. But I’m not storing my socks vertically. Or speaking to my shirts. And although, like Kondo, I’m an all-in declutterer (one room at a time, no wandering off to leave the task half-done), the fundamental animism of her method doesn’t speak to me. I am extremely averse to overt branding. I relate to the “brand allergies” of Kayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. But I will not cover up the labels of my detergent bottles so they do not “shout at me.” This seems a bit much; surely I can just look away?

I think that I have much in common with Kondo. Things, in general, seem to torment her. They must make their case or be banished. For me, no matter the cause of my sadness, I can feel better if I banish some stuff. I like an empty countertop. Some days I feel impossibly burdened by stuff. It’s not that I want to pick up and leave, but that it would be super hard if I wanted to. A military childhood imposes such discipline. Growing up, it was understood that everything we acquired needed to be moved every few years, so we weren’t to do much in the way of accumulating. Somebody would need to lift that box; somebody would have to pay for it to be shipped. The portability imperative seeps into you, influences every decision you make long into adulthood. Or else you refuse it altogether and decide that you will dig in absent outside orders, as my mother did in her later years.

These are first world problems. Kondo’s getting rich on a middle-brow version of affluenza. It’s a sweet spot: exporting the Japanese minimalist aesthetic to a society that takes comfort in its accumulation by watching Hoarders. “It could be so much worse,” we say as we buy something else from Amazon Prime.

IMG_2248Perhaps you have a house. Perhaps you read the glossy magazines, the tip-filled websites that armies of style mavens and merchandise wizards propagate, ostensibly, to help you achieve the kind of beauty and grace that will make people compliment you on your taste. Are you someone who needs to be complimented on your taste? If you are, in the immortal words of Flava Flav, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” If not, you probably still have a dim understanding of the ecosystem’s map. You may not have “taste,” but you have “a” taste. Or perhaps, at the most basic level, you have graduated beyond Blu Tack to the adult practice of hanging things that are in frames or on canvas. Like all of life’s pursuits, the business of decoration has levels of obsession. How you assign worth (social worth, not monetary value, in case you’re the sort of person who gets those confused) to these levels may depend on the number of times you’ve read Hal Foster’s masterwork Ornament and Crime.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you’re decorating. Unless you are a psychopath, or incarcerated in an especially restrictive institution, you probably have things hanging on your walls. Some of these may be pieces you love. Perhaps they speak to you and bring you happiness. Some may be art that you just like –  they don’t “spark joy,” but just look good in a particular place, or are the proper size. And then there’s art that you hate. Or, at least it’s not to your taste. I have a painting like this. And yet it is hanging in my house.

The reason why begins with our shared human experience, whose CliffsNotes read something like this: You’re born. Your father’s hands seem impossibly huge. Your mother loves you to distraction. You learn right from wrong, good from bad, tasty from not. You navigate furniture you learn to treasure, hewing to norms you internalize but may later reject. You may dye your hair. Or get a tattoo. You’ll come to terms with your family, or you won’t. In any case, the odds are that you’ll bury them. This means they won’t have to die alone. For you, there are no similar guarantees.

When their story is over, you may end up staring at a painting you don’t like.

It is not an ugly painting. I have lived with ugly paintings before – you learn to glide your vision right past them, the way Linus says he bleeps over the Russian names when reading Dostoyevsky. There are paintings that I love but would never hang in my house, ranging from the kind of “art” generally sold around Jackson Square in New Orleans (though I have an amazing painting from there, a beloved gift from my husband) to the kitsch people buy to remember Key West. Then there’s the expensive stuff. Lucien Freud: too disturbing to contemplate over morning coffee. I love Damien Hirst but would prefer that my home not contain preserved animal corpses. A mummified bird once lingered in the sad corner of my dead mother’s basement. I paid someone to remove it to an inglorious afterlife.

This painting sits squarely at a puzzling intersection of values: high sentiment and low currency. It is a simple still life of casually arranged white flowers in a clear vase on a white tablecloth. They light up a dark background. The frame is gilded to a point that approaches ostentation. It is signed by the artist, Juan Ignacio Sardi. A small gold plaque along the frame’s bottom edge helpfully displays his name. The untitled work is surprisingly large. It hung in the dining room in all of our homes. The leaky propane-heated wreck “on the economy” (as they say in the military) in Spain where we adopted a stray cat imaginatively named Gato. The featureless house on base in Rota. The giant, sprawling coal-heated mansion in a tiny English village. The Lubbock ranch home. Albuquerque’s in-between rentals. The yellow brick house where my mother died on the couch while folding laundry.

It does seem like the kind of picture you would hang in a dining room – peaceful, even a bit atmospheric, grand but not pretentious, monochromatic but a bit romantic. In short, art that doesn’t take away from a room. In the right context. Right now it hangs in our guest room, the golden frame clashing queasily with our unfortunately mustard-colored walls. There was already a nail in place, and I worried about the way our cats might decide to interface with things made of canvas (violently, if our couches are any indication), so there it sits. I don’t go into the guest room very often, so I don’t have to look at it. If nobody looks at art, is it still art?

In Kondo-speak, I’m not quite ready to “thank it for its service.” Mostly because I’m still trying to figure out the nature of its service. While your parents are living, it’s awfully hard to learn to know them as actual humans with hopes and dreams. Oddly, one of the best things I’ve ever seen about this is a profane cartoon involving Burt Reynolds.

Once your parents are gone, your last chance to know them is through the things they left behind. I’ve been sorting through their things for years. But it wasn’t until I thought about selling the painting that I realized I’d never considered what it meant. It has always been so fully in the background – the way a parent can be if you’re not conscious or careful.

I stare at the still life. I do not understand it. What is there to understand? Table, vase, flowers, cloth. I think of the chaos it has overseen – just three years ago, a wake complete with lobster salad and cheesecake, the time we stuffed everything into the garage to make the home seem serene, driving the chihuahua to Colorado, the cat to the vet. Their deaths. The day before closing when the hot water heater leaked, the awkward holiday meals. She would have been able to see the painting from where she died on the couch, just around the corner against some florid, dated wallpaper. Did it give her comfort? Was it background that it escaped notice? What was its service to her?

IMG_2249Standing in the guest room, I notice for the first time that the flowers have already begun to shed a few leaves. How have I not seen this before? Both the not-noticing and the wilting seem bittersweet. The painting exists outside of time – flowers always about to wilt, tablecloth ever a little rumpled. It’s also deeply embedded in time and context. How will I know if it’s sparking joy? What is its service to me? Then I realize that I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Kondo’s gotten in my head.

And then I get it. Marie Kondo doesn’t understand what objects are for. Or, more to the point, she has a fairly specific and crassly utilitarian understanding of what objects are for. They exist to serve us. Once they do not make us happy, they are released into the waste stream to serve someone else. So much of Kondo’s appeal is anchored in the valorization of the liberal humanist self, fully empowered to choose and deserving of all the service objects can provide. It’s such an appealing understanding of the world, just a little removed from the “dominion” philosophy used to justify activities like murdering and eating other animals. We want to believe that objects exist to serve us; even that art, somehow, exists to serve us. And that we should be filled with joy all the time. I get why this is popular. The alternative is pretty bleak – a de-centered self, a self shot through and constructed by the vagaries of time and chance. So instead we believe in “The Secret,” or the prosperity gospel, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or we decorate.

The House

Montgomery, Alabama is a tough place to live. We moved here eight years ago and saw it as a big adventure: Strange new city! Lots to explore! Over the years, our gee-whiz optimism diffused gradually. First there was: “there must be more than this,” then “hey, stop talking bad about our city” wagon-circling, then “let’s rattle this cage and make it better,” to “let’s talk about something else for a little while.” The background radiation of persistent racism is palpable in Montgomery, where there’s little in the way of live music and vegetarian food. As for public transportation, we’re famous for our buses, but not because of their efficiency. But we were determined to make it work.

A crucial part of our big Montgomery adventure was the thrill of owning our first home. Not just any home – the kind of home you dream about, with built-ins, transom, high ceilings and all of the molding and baseboards one could possibly want (turns out these are super hard to keep clean – who knew?). Over the years, we’ve thrown ourselves into many home repairs and been thrown into many others. Someone once told me that when the world outside seems tough, you’ve got to garden your own corner of the universe. So I’ve gardened every inch of this house. Some of this has involved decoration.

And then death made me sad. More specifically, I was seized with grief. I’ve learned many things about grief in the last three years, but here’s one people don’t talk much about. You can’t decorate your way out of out of it. This knowledge reveals itself in stages:

  1. What am I supposed to do with all this crap? This is the part when you drive a truck across the country and dump its contents into your front room. You despair over the pile, secretly wishing that it will vanish.
  2. I am totally going to deal with all this crap. Here, you shift into hyper-organized mode. Who can wear these plaid shirts? Shred the taxes. Stash the photos.
  3. Hey, some of this crap is really nice. You remember that you love your mother’s china pattern, even though she worried that it might be “too masculine” for you. Keep a flower vase, a few meaningful trinkets from overseas adventures. They make you smile.
  4. I can’t bring myself to get rid of this crap. It gets hard. You start slipping. Soon you hide a painting you don’t understand in a room you never visit.

Grief cauterizes the ends of more feelings than you’d care to acknowledge. Songs that used to make you sad, if you really listened, just glide through your brain now. What hard-hearted person can listen to Missing by Everything But The Girl and not get at least a little misty? You, it turns out. Meanwhile your brain’s mad librarian begins to shelve memories erratically. It pushes some to the back while others hang in front of your eyes for days. A story told hours ago seems sepia toned while a 2010 car trip feels fresh. As time whispers its contrails into the unknown future, key events become less liminal. Someday you are surprised to remember that your first boyfriend is dead. Or that there was a time when you read all of Love in the Time of Cholera out loud. Or that it’s been nearly 20 years since your father blindly choked his last in an Albuquerque hospital bed, so you can’t now ask him what to do with his military duffel bag or ancient Soviet history books. You discover that there is at least one more stage:

  1. I hate this but can’t explain why. This persistent painting, this enigma, this flat representation – how did it survive when everything else disintegrated? You hate it for its survival. You realize that this is entirely irrational.

Memory is a close cousin to grief. They share some traits. Neither prizes veracity or cares about opportunity costs. You can remember something to the letter, feel it despicable, and still not regret it. Grief drags you along, makes you look even if you don’t wish to. Memory makes wishing immaterial. Memory is the major and triumphalist key that grief doesn’t answer so much as amplify beyond your set frequencies.

Memory and grief also share a common and contested territory: time. My still life, for all of its efforts, cannot exist outside of time. This is both an ontological condition and an ethical imperative. As T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.” Redemption requires assigned value. In turn, that requires a reckoning. As you leaf through through things, sorting them for various destinations along a foreign trail divorced from both grief and memory, you will feel lost. You will want to hold on to as much as you can. You will want to get rid of everything. The painting reminds you that neither option is possible or desirable.

The flowers offer no answers. Their stillness reminds me we cannot stop time. Why, then, search for joy? Shouldn’t we let it find us? And why demand service from objects? Would we not be better to release ourselves from this sickening dependency? The truth about our belongings is much more difficult than dreamt of in Kondo’s philosophy. They’re not devices to deliver joy. Our things are the breadcrumbs we deploy so we don’t get lost in time. If they have something to do with joy, it’s only because we load them with our baggage and the things expected of us. The idea that we can discern “our” joy from the joy manufactured and force-fed us by the culture purveyors would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

I make my peace with the painting. Sometimes it’s okay to keep things that make you sad, or that you don’t understand. You can surround yourself with joy and not feel a bit of it. Every inch of your home can be servile and you can still want for more. Again, Eliot helps us to understand the predicament:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

When it’s time, I’ll give the painting to the baby. Perhaps she will have grand dinner parties under it, or contemplate it with tea in a quiet moment. Until then, I’ll hold on to it as a reminder that sometimes leaves fall without notice, without joy, and this can be beautiful.