I am on my third body shaver. The fourth, if you count the hair clipper that started it all off. The one I bought in that heady rush of blinding enthusiasm which comes with falling in love and in which you shed old habits and acquire new ones with such ease and so little concern for whether the new self you are fashioning is someone you’d live to have around the following month.

The heroic abandoned appliances from  the Disney film, Brave Little Toaster

The heroic abandoned appliances from the Disney film, Brave Little Toaster

The clipper wasn’t intended for body shaving, but it had to do. There were no other suitable appliances on the market at the time. This was before the arrival of the hairless 3%-body-fat Abercrombie & Fitch ideal of hunkiness moved body shaving from the backrooms of fetish to the bathrooms of mainstream America and companies began making appliances to accommodate the sudden need of countless men to rid themselves of unwanted axillary, pubic and thoracic body hair.

I had help the first time, which was kind of exciting and certainly a litmus test of trust for the beginning of a relationship. For me, though, it was one of those practices whose turn-on factor was directly proportional to its novelty, and I soon decided I might as well do this myself.

I was not hard to convince. I don’t have electric egg poachers or electric knives or yoghurt makers but I do have a large collection of grooming aids, including an electric toothbrush, water-flosser, nose trimmer and a blow-dryer I use for drying my ears after swimming. So I bought the clipper and when that satanically stopped working right after the warranty expired, purchased the Phillips body shaver that had in the meantime finally arrived on the market.

The gadget outlived the affair, as did my enthusiasm for body shaving. It turns out you really do need an A&F body to carry off a hairless crotch in your 40s. But I kept the shaver because, package instructions to the contrary notwithstanding, it was the perfect tool to crop the overgrown stubble on my scalp before taking a razor to it. It was an appliance whose utility was wholly a function of my laziness. There is a point between head shaves, one I often missed, beyond which the application of a razor to the scalp is bound to end in blood.

The Phillips eventually gave the up the ghost as well, inconveniently right after the guarantee had also retired from active service. I know that machines are not designed to last for ever. Indeed, there are tables published on the Internet with the estimated lifespan—yes, this is the word used—of appliances, major and minor. Oven hoods conk out at 14, gas boilers at 20. Trash compactors eke out a measly 6 years. The actuarial tables of the domestic machine give no indication of the cause of the death. My shaver ended its useful existence in a frenzy of partying. The on-off button got stuck and it wouldn’t turn off. Oddly enough, I couldn’t just throw it out. It seemed unseemly to do so. So I put it in a box and the box in a drawer in the bathroom and let it run until the battery drained, which wasn’t much better. I could still hear it, slowly expiring. I felt as if I were committing an act of infanticide.

It is not easy to part with a machine. Chipped dishes, souvenirs that have grown ugly with time, clothes that belonged to a body we once were or hoped to become, objects that spoke to a self that we have grown out of—these are easier to get rid of. But machines, no. They occupy a no-man’s, no-object’s land between the inanimate and the animate. Appliances run on current, an animating juice of sorts, an élan vital, even if it is méchanique, that allow them to move. They seem somehow alive.

Mechanical objects have their own calculus of utility. If you plug it in and something happens, there’s still some use to be had. Though it’s rare when we actually question whether the intended use really was in fact useful. Most “labor-saving” small appliances do nothing of the sort; they are really compensating for a lack of discipline, time or skill. Good knife skills—and a very good knife—make most kitchen devices superfluous.

I have kept an ancient blender long after I acquired one of those unimaginably powerful machines that can liquefy iPhones. The scratches on its old plastic beaker seem to provide a resting place for a crew of odd smelling bacteria but it does whiz when I turn it on. And it does one thing better than its modern replacement: hummus. So I have kept it, In a drawer with such relics as an old Zip drive, a digital voice recorder and a waterproof iPod shuffle that won’t turn on but I think just might if it let it rest long enough.

It’s not as endearing a crew of obsolete appliances as the Sunbeam toaster, electric blanket, Bakelite radio, vacuum cleaner and gooseneck lamp who were the protagonists in the independent animated film, The Brave Little Toaster, which was picked up and released by Disney. Curiously enough, the creative talent behind the animation in this film went on to some of the original members of Pixar Animation Studios.

After years of living abandoned in an empty country cabin, these outdated small appliances decide to set off on a journey to find their long-lost “master”, a young boy who hasn’t been to the cabin in a decade. Ironically, unbeknownst to this brave crew of misfits, the master, now a young man about to head off to college with his girlfriend, drives off to the cabin to pick up the old appliances and take them with him to the dorm. As Rob, the “master” drives off to the cabin, Toaster, Blanky and the rest of the crew go through a series of harrowing experiences on their way to Rob’s apartment in the city. Despite the utterly wacky pretense–ok  a movie with an electric blanket in a supporting role?—the film has some interesting things to say about usefulness, loss and fidelity. One of the most poignant scenes of the film was the night the misfit crew spends in the workshop of Elmo St. Peters, the owner of an appliance parts store, a man who rescues old appliances only to disassemble them later to sell their spare parts. An overhead light with a Peter-Lorre-like voice warns the newcomers “you never quite know what he’s going to do,” and the motley assembly of broken, abandoned appliances burst out in a song, “it’s like a movie show.” They mean, Frankenstein.

I’m not hoarding useless appliances. I’m saving them.

The Braun shaver eventually stopped working, too. It wouldn’t charge. I left it on its base for 48 hours and it wouldn’t even hum for me when I turned it on. I repeated this procedure a number of times with the same result. Zilch. I felt betrayed. I saw it as a failure of the appliance’s self-will and self-discipline (yes, of course, I realize this was a projection of my own lack thereof). But I still felt it wasn’t trying hard enough.

I went out and bought another one. The same model. And the first thing I did when I got home from shopping was to toss the old one into the kitchen pail. Whereupon it started to buzz.

This was most spooky, I must confess. I immediately snatched out of the garbage. It seemed wrong to leave it there on its bed of coffee grounds and eggshells. I took it out, cleaned it carefully, and laid it to rest in the drawer with the scratched smelly blender and Zip drive.

But then I got to thinking. In the end these obsolescent appliances are an iconic representation of the obsolescence to which I myself am fated to become. I recognize that my solicitousness to these broken objects of diminished utility is an act of defiance against the eventuality of my own uselessness, at least in the ways that utility is measured in our production-obsessed society. But that’s the stuff of movies.

This afternoon I took out the shaver and the blender and the Zip drive and the rest of broken machines in my drawer of uselessness and brought them to a recycling bin for appliances. I could have taken them to the equivalent of Elmo St. Peter’s shop. But that would have been inhuman, wouldn’t it?

Incidentally, AV Club reports that Waterman Entertainment has recently acquired the rights to The Brave Little Toaster and is planning a CGI/live-action sequel which will feature a number of gadgets that were not around during the production of the original animated feature. One of these is the iPhone.


Veteran viewers of crime-scene investigation series know that the houses of victims and suspects alike can reveal unsavory truths about the life of their inhabitants: perversions, addictions and obsessions come to the fore through the things they have kept hidden from the view of all but the more intimate of their relations, and sometimes even from them: the handcuffs, porn and dope of a secret or second life, the ostraka of shame that signal a violation, if only perceived, of cultural or social values. Which is why they are hidden in the first place.

Attila Richard Lukacs, “Phil, Study for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason”. 1999

Attila Richard Lukacs, “Phil, Study for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason”. 1999

I have plenty of objects of guilt, but none, I think, of shame. I have my share of pornography, but nothing I am ashamed of. The few sex toys I have are common enough to be a source of amusement and nothing else; the more esoteric gear would perhaps provoke curiosity as to its intended use. No, there is nothing I feel I would need or want to hide from the eyes of a CSI detective. The closest might be a pair of old sweatpants I wear around the house, too comfortable to throw away but too frayed and kitchen-stained to be worn in company of others.

Guilt is another thing entirely. It is that nagging feeling of regret over a transgression or omission, a violation not so much of fundamental principles of decency but of the standards we set for ourselves. Shame says, I am bad; guilt, I have done something wrong or failed to do something right. Guilt makes us want to atone, rather than to hide.

And I have plenty of guilt objects. The 100 Best Swimming Drills (I don’t do drills often enough), the score to the Well-Tempered Clavier (which I keep thinking I’ll study but don’t), the second half of my friend Natalie’s first book of poems (unread), the second half of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (ditto), corkscrew (used too often), juicer (not used enough),… There are lots more. I see them from time to time, reminding me of my imperfections and failed resolutions. None is hidden so well that I can avoid encountering it entirely. I could just give them away, but then I would feel guilty about getting rid of things I was guilty about not using in the first place; it’s the weakling’s way out. Sounds complicated but it makes sense to me in a comfortably perverse way.

I know that for most people it’s the other way around. They don’t feel guilty about unread or unused books but are a little embarrassed about having a store of porn. It’s not because of some kind of internalized priggishness. I suspect most feel guilty about the very idea of using porn to get off (though of course they do use it), as if porn were something only zit-besieged adolescents and fat old men use because they can’t or don’t think they can get fucked. This, of course, is untrue. Porn is like delivery pizza. There are just some days you don’t have the time or energy (or opportunity) to do up a home-cooked meal.

I’m actually quite fond of the porn I have, mostly because the DVDs were a gift from a boyfriend I was very fond of. He was a sometimes-out-of-work and underpaid construction worker and this was the only gift he could afford. It was a homemade gift that embodied a pride in craftsmanship and the affection he had for me. They were never just copies of DVDs; instead, he carefully selected and edited scenes from a variety of primary sources. He, more than anyone else, knew what turned me on and he curated these scenes for an exhibition that was intended for one and only one viewer: me

His DVD recorder was the prized object among a very small menagerie of possessions. He was a minimalist by necessity, having neither the means nor the space to acquire much of anything. He was that mythic figure, a man of a hundred things. He lived in a tiny basement flat. A hall at the bottom of a short flight of stairs served as the living room, barely big enough for a small two-seat sofa. There was no room on the floor for his stereo speakers, so he had mounted these on the wall. His bedroom fit a bed and an armoire he had rescued from a building awaiting demolition. But though small he had made the flat his. He had painted the bedroom walls and ceiling in swirls of blacklight paint and lined the front of the armoire with mirrors. There were a row of hardy plants on the steps of the stairs, and a collection of curios he had picked up over the years at flea markets that included a lava lamp and a minaret-shaped bird-cage. He was proud of them all. I soon came to believe that his affection for the things he owned was directly proportional to the number of possessions he had.

Even though I’ve seen these DVD”s dozens of times and the edge has worn off, even though it’s been months since I’ve even spoken to Wacław, they are still too charged with his presence for me to consider getting rid of them. In an odd way they are among the life-affirming things I own. They are a testimony to a rare friendship and a witness to the ingenious nobility of a man without possessions who could nonetheless craft a gift, equally rare—a gift that was made for one and only one person in mind.

I won’t throw them away, not right now. Instead, I gather together some of my many guilt objects: a jump-rope, a Dutch grammar, Dietmar Dath’s monumental cult novel Die Abschaffung der Arten, which I’ve tried to read at least three times but never got beyond page 60, the Mahler symphonies I’ve told myself I really should listen to but never want to. I collect them as if preparing the kindling for an expiatory funeral pyre. I won’t burn these, of course, but I’m not inclined to give them away. Bad karma. I’ll put them in a box and put them outside the dumpster tomorrow morning. And when I come back from work, I’ll put on one of Wacław’s DVD.

“Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?”
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Gil, the frustrated Hollywood screenwriter in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, has found a way to slip into the Paris of the 1920s and into the company of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Cole Porter, Getrude Stein, Picasso and other luminaries from the period. It’s a Paris washed in a cloying, honey-gold light. The light is everywhere: it suffuses the elegant flat where Cole Parter is to be seen singing “Let’s Do It”, radiates in the café where Gil meets Dali and Man Ray, imbues Gertrude Stein’s rambling flat and her collection of paintings and painters. It even seems to drip from the lanterns on the Pont Alexandre III and the streetlights. It’s a light that blurs the hard edges of the city; it turns the sparely furnished bar where Hemingway holds court into a cozy, almost familial interior that bears no trace of the down-and-outness of the original Dingo. It is the amber light of nostalgia, one that speaks of comfort and warmth and points to a place of innocence and play: a never-ending kids’ party. The Golden Age is quite literally golden. Or at least the light is.

Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, or through a glass amber

Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, or through a glass amber

The nostalgia takes the edge off of everything and everyone. Allen’s Paris is inhabited by artists and writers who’ve left their modernism home at the atelier. Gil can’t resist giving Buñuel a tip for a future movie (one that the filmmaker went on to direct in The Exterminating Angel). Make a film, Gil says, about a group of bourgeois guests who arrive at a villa for a dinner party and suddenly find that they can’t leave. Buñuel’s pedestrian reply, “I don’t understand. Why don’t they use the door?” is meant to be a joke, a knowing wink to the discerning filmgoer, but ironically enough calls to mind the very kind of remark an American innocent abroad would make.

Allen’s Paris, like all romantic nostalgia, is comfort food: easy to chew and digest, and stripped of the sour, the bitter and the burning. Watching Midnight in Paris and without the benefit of background knowledge, one would be hard pressed to imagine these characters as the artists and writers who were so radically questioning the established canons of prose and painting. These characters are the cinematic equivalents of grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna casserole.

At first I thought it odd that Gil could be nostalgic about a time in which he never actually lived. Nostalgia is literally the aching to return home, to that magical place where we were unconditionally accepted and loved. Paris was never home to Gil.

But then I thought, the world I remember of my own childhood is perhaps just as much an invention as Gil’s (and Allen’s) Paris. Perhaps the places we long return to never actually existed.

We dream of places we’ve never been, events we’ve never experienced, conversations we’ve never had. I’ve run through the stone streets of an ancient city as a volcano spewed forth a shower of lava rocks. I’ve fallen from a cliff onto a Mayan altar in the middle of a jungle. I’ve swum in rivers alongside great stone cities and grassy country fields. I’ve flown and I’ve died. Why should my memories—especially those of my childhood—be any more reliable?

Betty Draper serving punch, scene from Mad Men

Betty Draper serving punch, scene from Mad Men

I know I was a happy child, but beyond that certainty, the rest of the past is a landscape much like a painting by Dalí: a great expanse of empty space dotted with the presence of a number of enigmatic objects, laden with meaning and feeling. Toys, mostly. Models of monsters and knights in armor, Potato Heads and Mousetraps, Lionel trains and bubble-light trees. But sometimes an object so closely bound to memories it has become iconic, like the electric percolator my mother put out on the buffet table at the large extended family gatherings (they were too frequent and informal to be called parties) or the TV trays we’d set up to watch an episode of early-evening series en famille. There is food on this landscape, too, things like crumb cake, homemade ravioli and jam-filled thumbprint cookies and of course that very surreal food object, the Taylor ham sandwich.

The landscape of Gil’s Paris of the 20s is populated not with things but with artists and writers, but they are depicted so emblematically that they come to resemble objects, mannequins more than men (Hemingway’s lines in the film are so awkwardly Hemingway-esque that he seems at time to be parodying his prose.). And surprisingly for Paris, there’s no food either. No one ever eats anything in this world of reverie. But then again, as far as I can recall, no one smokes, either. Or passes out drunk. Gil’s Paris is the sanitized, almost cartoon-like Paris one would find in a children’s Guide to the Jazz Age.

But that makes sense in a way. Nostalgia is always regression. We are always younger in our own chosen Golden Age.

Back in the Paris of 2010, Gil keeps discovering objects that link to his midnight city: a record of a Cole Porter song, a journal kept by a woman who was Picasso’s mistress at the time (and whom Gil slowly comes to realize he wants to make love to). I have no things that can evoke for me the city of my childhood. I make do with the episodes of Mad Men, that paean to the innocent first half of the 60s, which, in its gorgeous art direction and fetishistic fidelity to the fashion, food and décor of the period—not to mention the tobacco, in Mad Men practically everyone smokes, even the pregnant young mother—is an orgy of nostalgia. As Ruth La Ferla wrote in the NY Times,“Mad Men is that rare TV show in which an ashtray, a lipstick or an aerosol tin gets star treatment, and is a protagonist in its own right.” And I see my star—my mother’s percolator, or something very much like it.

My brother collects vintage board games. I content myself with virtual memorabilia, embedded in a set where everything fits with everything else. I’ve bought all four series and have watched them twice. It is like comfort food, though the series is much subtler and more unsettling that its art direction would imply. Of course, I recognize that the exacting authenticity of Mad Men’s production design creates as much as fantasy world as the inauthenticity of Midnight Paris. It seems that everything in Mad Men is from the early 60s (as if people only started buying things in 1960), and (almost) nothing in Allen’s Paris of 2010 is later than Haussmann (the I.M. Pei pyramid makes the briefest of cameo appearances). But I wallow in it nonetheless.

The DVDs seem a fitting object to get rid of in this project. Dispossession is, among other things, an occasion to re-examine and re-interpret the remembered past, or at least to tell a story about it. It got to me thinking, I don’t need to watch this anymore. I need to write my own Mad Men. Or at least something about Taylor ham.

The closer our relationship drew to a close, the more occasions Matthew and I found to disagree. At some point—his moment of truth came earlier than mine—we must have realized there was no longer any real hope for salvaging our relationship, and the recognition of this impasse enabled us to fight more freely. You dance with more abandon if you’re not afraid of breaking something.

Tomo Yamaguchi, Berlin interior

Tomo Yamaguchi, Berlin interior

One of the things we now found to argue about was unpacking after a trip. I wanted to do it as soon as we got home; Matthew was content to leave it for the next morning, and then he’d unpack only the things he needed. The rest could wait for the day after. He wanted to draw out the feeling of vacation; I wanted to put things back where they belonged, as if the possessions that lay stuffed in our suitcases were impish pranksters that needed to be gotten back into their cages before they started wreaking havoc in the flat. Or ran away.

Suitcases speak of transience and uprootedness, even if it’s one we’ve chosen, indeed, desire. They are the make-shift homes-on-the-go we drag from train station to bus depot to hotel. They don’t belong in the living room. They point too brazenly to leaving.

It was only later that I realized that Matthew could be so at ease with an unpacked suitcase in the living room precisely because he wasn’t planning on sticking around anyway. In his mind, he was already on the way to somewhere else.

I must have an issue with transience. Not only do I unpack immediately upon coming home from a trip, I also unpack when arriving at my destination. I’m that rare traveler that actually uses all the drawers and hangers and shelf space you’re given in a decent hotel room. Shirts and trousers get hung up, socks, underwear and sweaters are laid out in the dresser drawers, dress and running shoes are lined up on the closet floor, toiletries get arranged on the bathroom shelf (why don’t hotel rooms have medicine cabinets?), the assortment of cables and chargers are stowed in the desk drawer. And then, of course, I hide the suitcase in the closet or under the bed.

In essence I set up house. I create a shell of domesticity in which I feel comfortable. I don’t go as far as setting out framed photos, but I don’t do that at home either. Doing so would be just as inauthentic for me as wearing a blazer or a heavy-metal t-shirt. There are clothes that feel right on you and those that don’t. There are objects that belong (or could belong) in your space and those that don’t.

Those of us with the luxury to determine and equip the space in which we live have shaped, even if only unconsciously, an environment that fits us, perhaps not as closely as an antigen to its antibody, but close enough for us to feel comfortable there to a degree we don’t most other places. Think of a friend’s house. Is there nothing you wouldn’t change if his space became yours?

If I wear my house as a shell it is a relatively spare one, without the intricate and dense texture that things exposed or exhibited lend to a living space. Surfaces are relatively empty, except for my books, a handful of photographs and prints, and various minor appliances of too frequent use to be stowed away—the coffee grinder, juicer and blender. Oh, and a collection of ladles and wooden spoons set in a tall earthenware crock. It is like a protein with a minimum of folds, but there are enough to give it identity and make it feel mine. It’s comfortable. It fits.

I returned to this idea of domestic texture after coming across the work of Tomo Yamaguchi, a young photographer who works out of Leipzig and takes photos of the interiors of strangers’ flats. The rooms are neither the forlorn shelters of the destitute nor the salons of the rich but rather the interiors of ordinary people. I was struck by how the rooms had such distinctive character or texture. None of the rooms was particularly attractive or inviting, but each was remarkably idiosyncratic. I realize this distinctiveness is also the result of a deliberate curatorial act but still, these rooms told a story/ And they told it through the objects they housed.

The things in each room oddly enough seemed to belong together. I had the feeling that if all these objects fell out of their frame, I could put most of the puzzle back together again. Some pieces, like the porcelain figurines and paper roses could go into more than one frame but the others, I knew: the embroidered cat pillows and spindle-legged ashtray stand and hanging spoons in one, the enamel ewers, antique alarm clocks and the collection of blue bottles in another, the cheap Danish 1970s furniture, ceramic gnomes and beeswax candles in the form of druids in another.

The kinship of objects was all the more arresting because of the frequent clash in patterns, color and style they evinced; they were like adopted children who after long years growing up in the same house have come to so resemble one another in behavior and speech that the casual observer ceases to remark that they share neither skin color nor build. The disharmony in the patterns of the rugs, throws, pillows and mats that draped these rooms was particularly jarring. Perhaps most people have a higher tolerance of incongruous visual elements than I do, a higher threshold for visual clash or whatever we call it. There may not even be a visual equivalent for “dissonance” or “disharmony”.

Many of the flats depicted in Yamaguchi’s photographs also contain a collection of sorts. The number of items in the collection varies from flat to flat: there are thirty of more enamel pitchers in one photograph but only a half-dozen gnomes in another, but even in the latter the coexistence of these objects was not coincidental. I was convinced that they did not all arrive in the buffet at the same time. They had been accumulated in that ritual act of repetition that gives collecting its meaning. I am also absolutely convinced that the persons living in these flats would be able to recount with an amazing degree of clarity the circumstances under which they acquired each of the items in their collection and the story each had to tell. Each object has taken its rightful place on the shelf or in the buffet in an order known only to the collector. What is a collection if not, as Benjamin wrote, “disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

The aphorism appears in a small, delightful essay called Unpacking My Library, in which Benjamin, himself an avid collector of rare books, invites the reader to share in his thoughts on collecting as he unpacks the crates containing his books. The text traces the particularly intimate relationship that a collector develops for the objections in his collection, an intimacy intricately bound up in acts of acquisition and conquest.  He writes: “For a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” And he can do this because precisely of the memories that these objects incorporate.

It strikes me that this project is paradoxically an act of collecting, too. It has many of the features of collecting. I document the objects I dispose of; indeed, I am still considering whether, and if so, how to photograph them. I think about how best to organize and display them. I search for appropriate titles for the texts and the photographs and reproductions of paintings that accompany them. I catalogue and index the things I give or throw away.

It is a odd set of things, this collection of loss, made up of objects of disrepair and neglect, of incongruity and obsolescence. But the things in my collection of loss, like the crates of Benjamin’s books and the array of blue gin bottles in an anonymous Berlin apartment, contain memories, too. And chronicling the loss of these things is perhaps just as good a way of preserving these memories as displaying them in a cabinet.

The first objects I acquired in Athens, even before I bought a table or camping stove for my wholly unfurnished flat, were a pair of small, oblong decorative plates from the island of Skyros that were given to me by a grateful mother whose son I was tutoring in English. I had just arrived in the city and had picked up the lesson from a friend of mine who had met the son while vacationing on the island. I knew nothing of what a private tutor would charge and wound up asking for much less than the going rate, so the mother’s gratitude was quite understandable. Though it wasn’t just gratitude. She was hospitable in that grand and genuine way many islanders are. At the start of each lesson she’d make me coffee and accompany it with a homemade spoon sweet served on a small plate that I knew was reserved for company.

The plates she gave were are handsome ones for their genre, both hand-painted, one with a scene of a yellow-sailed schooner on a billowy green sea, the other a wispy indigo butterfly hovering between two mauve flowers, and both ringed by a riot of decorative elements.

The scallop-edged plates could form part of a collection and in fact, plates like these were traditionally displayed on the walls of Skyrian houses. The ones I have came with holes in back ready for hanging. I never did hang them, and rarely used them, and only when I was serving something like stewed octopus or yellow lentil purée.  The plates always seemed to belong to another household.

I will keep one plate, the smaller one until I write about Aris, the teenager I tutored. The other I’ll give to Joanna. One of her grandparents was born on the island and though I doubt if the plate will wind up on the wall, it will find better company in her flat than it ever has in mine.

I didn’t think of myself as an immigrant when I first arrived in Greece. I wasn’t even planning to stay. It was supposed to be my year of self-indulgence before starting a “real career”. I would finish the play I had begun in graduate school. I would travel to the islands and Italy and France.

But even if I had known I would wind up living here for twenty years and not one, I would still have been a privileged immigrant. The place I had come from had not been visited by war or famine or persecution. I didn’t speak the language, but the one I did speak was understood by most here. I had money. I had skills and education. More importantly, I had a place to go back to.

Philip-Lorca di Corcia, Gianni

Philip-Lorca di Corcia, Gianni

Of course, I was a foreigner here and almost as clueless about the local culture as the Ethiopians and Filipinos and Kurds with whom I stood in line at the Alien’s Bureau to get my papers processed. But by virtue of my skin color and place of birth, I was one of the “good” foreigners, even when many Greeks consider Americans hopelessly naïve. I was generally treated well, except at the Alien’s Bureau, where I was dealt the same rudeness, condescension and indifference as my counterparts from Asia and Africa were.

There was one other thing I had in common with my fellow immigrants. The only possessions I had were those I arrived with. I had given away my books and most of my clothes before leaving Boston. Living with Mark and Annette I hadn’t needed to have any furniture of my own. Apart from my beloved Motobécaine, which they offered to store until I returned to the States, I actually possessed nothing other than the clothes I had packed with me to come to Greece.

I might have packed differently if I had known I’d be staying the rest of my life. Ahmed and Sultana and Tadeusz knew they’d be staying, and their suitcase was likely better suited for a life of exile than mine. Among the inexplicable objects I carried with me across the Atlantic was an umbrella. What possessed me to bring an umbrella in August to a country that has a word for the rain that breaks the summer drought in late September I don’t know. And of all the umbrellas I could bring, I schlepped a non-retractable one. Admittedly it was elegant, with its wood-tipped ribs, generous slate gray fabric and an ash-blond wooden handle. But it was too big to fit in my suitcase and I had to carry on board. If I had know what awaited me in Athens—apart from the lack of rain—I would have left it in Boston and brought something more practical with me.

No one had told me before that when you rent an apartment in Athens, you get basically just the physical space. No refrigerator, no stove. Not a single piece of furniture. Just the space.

I rented a tiny basement studio flat in an area of town frequented by students and the lower intellectuals. The flat was basically a room that served as both bedroom and living room, plus a small kitchen and bathroom. The place was dark, even at noon. Only the top quarter of the single window looked out on to the street; the rest faced a very narrow window well. Now I wouldn’t be able to stay there for more than a day or two but back then I was so happy to finally get out of the cheap hotel I was staying at that it seemed the perfect place to finish my play (not without justification, since there was very little I could do in the place other than sleep, read and write). And the landlady was nice. She took a liking to me and arranged for her brother to deliver a cot to the place.

Apart from my clothes and toiletries, the cot and my umbrella were the only possessions I had. The next day I bought some cheap sheets, a blanket, a couple of pots and pans, and a hotplate. A few weeks later I got a small desk and a pair of chairs. I was set.

Living so sparely had its disadvantages, but I suppose I saw it all as an adventure of sorts and it didn’t bother me much. I couldn’t entertain the few friends I was making, but they had much nicer places and would invite me over for dinner. The owner of the language school I worked for took me under her wing, and I’d go to her place in the early afternoon for a Greek lesson followed by some of her amazing cooking. I think she was eager for the company. Her husband was in jail at that time for embezzlement.

At home I accommodated. I bought powdered milk for my breakfast cereal. I cooked things like omelets and tuna stir fries and canned bean salads that I didn’t need a refrigerator for. But mostly I ate out in tavernas, which is where I met Matthew. I sometimes think that if I had been living in a nicer place he wouldn’t have asked me to move in with him so soon. We would have waited, and then he might not have ever asked me to move in with him. And like the privileged immigrant I was, I would have returned to the States.

I still have the umbrella twenty years later. Considering how easy it is to lose an umbrella, this is remarkable. I’ve lost more than a dozen umbrellas over the decades but this one is still with me. Part of the reason why, I suppose, is that’s so conspicuous. I would start to leave a restaurant or the movie theater without it and someone would inevitably cry out, “hey, you forgot your umbrella!” But the real reason is that I just stopped using it after a while. It was too big—when I stood it erect on the floor it reached up to my hip—and utterly inconvenient for travelling. The fashion statement it made was anachronistic and, yes, somehow very foreign.

I keep it in an umbrella stand on the landing outside my flat. It’s been used once in the last ten years, when a sudden autumn storm broke when Nikolas was about to set off for home after supper at my place.

The umbrella, along with the overcoat I’m not parting with, is the only thing left from the stuff I carried with me from the States. It’s a relic from a bygone culture. The firm that made my umbrella has gone out of business; American Umbrella Company now refers to an Ohio roofing and siding firm run by an Air Force vet. I don’t know what happened to the bike; I think Mark donated it for a church fund-raising garage sale. It, too, was a relic of a dying tribe. Motobécaine was bought by Yamaha, which didn’t continue the bike line of business (the Motobecane bikes sold in the US under the French company’s old logo are Taiwanese). Even Mark and Annette are gone from Boston. Sadly, Mark died last year. Annette moved to Rhode Island with her new boyfriend. My umbrella is a symbol of my life in Boston but a reminder of transience and mortality, an emblem of loss. It is among the saddest objects I own.

Ever more frequently I notice immigrants, mostly South Asian, wheeling shopping carts around my neighborhood, stopping at dumpsters to pick through the garbage and retrieve pieces of wood and scrap metal and, if they’re lucky, an old appliance or gadget. Considering how little Greeks recycle their waste, the immigrants can actually eke out a living out of this trade. In the evening I bring down my vintage, non-collapsible umbrella and set it beside the dumpster. The next morning when I set off for work, it’s gone.

Imagine you’ve been asked to curate an exhibition of your life. You’ve been given a warren of six or more rooms (depending on how old you are) in a small abandoned hotel that is scheduled for demolition. Each room will be devoted to your life at a specific age, say 7, 13, 18, 30… You’ll soon realize that the first room, the one dedicated to your childhood, will be crammed with things, more so than any other room in the exhibition.

Nigel Shafran, from his series Charity Shops / Car-boot Sales / Market Stalls

Nigel Shafran, from his series Charity Shops / Car-boot Sales / Market Stalls

Many of the earliest memories I have from childhood are connected to things. Even when I recall persons and places and events, they are always accompanied by even more vivid memories of things. I could draw a fairly good reproduction of the Thanksgiving house decorations my mother would put up. I can almost feel the seersucker shortie pajamas I wore at our summer house. I recall a particular kind of crayon that had to be kept in the refrigerator and a plastic cup I drank out of with its built-in plastic straw. My parents surely celebrated at least part of my birthdays in the kitchen but I don’t remember any in particular. But I do remember the parallel grooves in the edges of a formica kitchen table and the yellow plastic cushioned seats of the chairs that were set around it. And, of course, I recall the toys and games, the Elgo sets of red plastic bricks and white trim that my brothers and I built houses from, more idyllic than the basement flat we lived in, and the panel-and-girder set we constructed towers and forts with.

My brother and I always seemed to be making things. My mother got us to make break baskets out of Popsicle sticks. We glued pasta shells on empty cigar boxes, which she spray painted gold, and ironed fallen oak leaves between sheets of wax paper. She let us watch entranced as she heated marbles in a cast-iron frying pan and then slid them into a bowl of ice water; this would “crystallize” them, or so we thought, as we glued them onto the earring posts she had given us. She gave us sheets of small mosaic tiles that we’d pull off from and affix, one by one, to a concave square disc that could be used as an ashtray. Once she baked an LP and let us shape it into an undulating fruit bowl.

It was my introduction to the transformative processes of art, though then it was just a lot of fun. No, it was more than fun. It was enchanting and magical, seeing how an object slowly took or changed shape as it was being constructed or manipulated.

I would experience this again in junior high school in shop class, also known back then as “industrial arts”. Such classes were more or less done away with in the 1990s under the pressure of funding cutbacks and, as philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford notes in his Shop Class as Soulcraft, a general lack of appreciation, if not actual belittlement, of the value of the manual trades.

In shop we learned how to use a lathe to turn a columnar block of wood into the neck of a table lamp. We were taught how to hammer a piece of sheet metal into an ashtray. We were shown how to work with plaster and stir in powdered pigments ever so gently to create a sense of marble in the mold for the (yes) ashtray we were making.

I imagine these activities were intended not only to teach us how to use power tools and work with different kinds of material but also and more importantly to train us to make things, in preparation perhaps for our future as a provider and metaphorical builder of the family home. These classes taught us respect for good workmanship, which was a matter of skill but also attentiveness, timing and the respect, if not affection, for the materials with which one works.

I, for one, saw how easily things could go wrong: too much pressure for too long would turn the piece of wood spinning on the lathe into a spindly mockery of a chair leg. I wasn’t very good at making things. Maybe I was too unsure of myself as a kid. Or too nervous around the power tools. I never became good with my hands. I contented myself with assembling things, rather than making them. Naturally I knew fairly early on that building bird and monster models and filling in the contoured shapes of a Venus Paradise coloring sheet, whatever pleasure it afforded me while I was doing it, was a substitute for something else. Later on in life I started making things of my own: poems, some stories, thousands of lines of programming code, a couple of plays. Not prolific in output and, with the exception of the code, usually for myself and friends, but it was in some sense creation.

But I don’t know how things work. The mechanics of objects mystifies me. I had to ask my downstairs neighbor to help me put up a blackout shade on my glass-paned bedroom door. Jörg says even girls have better toolkits than I do.

Which is why I have a collection of broken things. The clocks with the paralyzed second-hand, a Braun citrus press that dribbles when I squeeze oranges, a Phillips body shaver that keeps getting stuck on “on” and buzzes until the battery drains, a blender that’s been reduced to only one speed.

I’ve accommodated myself to these disabilities. I’ve replaced most of these things, anyway. I keep saying I’ll take them somewhere to get fixed, but I never get around to it, so they just pile up, witnesses to my incompetence with things that do things.

I still retain enough from the early lessons I learned with my mother and her crafts projects and then later in shop class not to be able to throw these disabled objects out. Something in me says these things should be saved. Now as I write this I remember my friend Anita telling me about an organization in the city that does exactly that. You call them up and arrange a time for them to stop by and pick up things that have broken—CD players and old PCs and I suppose even blenders—and they fix them and then re-sell them. The money goes to some charitable purpose, I can’t remember which exactly, but it doesn’t matter. They can have them all—the blender, the VCR, an old laptop I have, even the body shaver (though I doubt if that has any salvage value)—except maybe the Braun press. I can deal with the dribbles for now.

The wall clock stopped dead at 10:19. It must have been p.m. It’s something I would have noticed during the day. I’m not an obsessive clock-watcher, but there always seems to be a reason to check the time. Are the lentils done? Will I be in time for the bus that leaves on the quarter-hour? Is it too late to call Michael, who goes to bed even earlier than I do? Too early for Nikolas?

Francis Upritchard, Roman Plastics

Francis Upritchard, Roman Plastics

The next morning I replaced the batteries and reset the time. It was then that I noticed that the problem wasn’t the power source but the second-hand. It was stuck at the 50-second mark. It made a beat, lurching to the next mark on the clock and then falling back, as if the move to 51 seconds had proved too great a challenge. It kept repeating this pattern, beating like a needle-shaped heart, up the clock face a quarter-inch and then back down, again and again, the last palpitations of a fallen, loyal sentry.

The clock was a classic Braun (excuse the redundancy) wall clock of impeccable simplicity and functionality, a cream-colored 1950s model with the hours marked in a geometric typeface. It had stood guard on a post in the kitchen for the last decade. I must have looked at it thousands of time. Even now that it’s gone, I catch myself craning my neck to the post, only to see a column of absence. It makes me uneasy that it’s gone. It feels as if someone had stolen the flat’s mezuzah.

I don’t know what possessed me to throw it away. This was before the What’s Left project. I vaguely remember thinking it’d probably cost almost as much to repair it as to get a new one, only to discover later that, first of all, this particularly clock is no longer produced, and the auctions for the few you can find on ebay start at over $120. I’m sad it’s gone. It was a beautiful object. (If one thing this project is teaching me, it’s how attached I am to the—few—beautiful things I own).

I had a second wall clock in the bathroom, a cheap nautical-looking thing but at least it told the time. I put it up where the Braun clock had been. A few days later it stopped. The second-hand was trapped at about the same place. The 50-second mark.

It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. I know it happened. I may have misremembered the exact point at which the second-hand of the first clock stopped, but I know the second-hand was entrapped. You don’t forget a jammed, pulsating clock hand. Twice. I took it down right away.

Two arrested wall clocks is something to be reckoned with, even for someone like me. Dieter says I’m overly materialistic. He means I tend to explain nearly everything—including things like infatuation, faith, and altruism—in terms of physical processes. God is in the neurons kind of thing. And he’s right, even if I do try to keep this to myself. I don’t tell Liza that the “active ingredients” in her shockingly expensive homeopathic medicine that she swears keeps her migraines under control has a concentration of one molecule to an amount of water roughly 30 billion times the size of the earth. I have some very smart friends, some much smarter than I am, who are convinced of the effectiveness of things that to me seem to have no solid scientific claim to truth. I suddenly felt very much like them.

Yannos is one such friend. He has a big glass apotropaic eye hanging in his living room. A navy-blue blot within a powder-blue yolk suspended within an ever lighter blue medium. “To ward off the evil eye,” he said. “I know, you think it’s ridiculous, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions.” Yannos calls his mother whenever he has headache. To cast off the evil eye. I once told him that he could have instead set out one of his heroically sized dildos, as they did in Antiquity, but he wasn’t amused. I’ve learned not to contest his theories. I’m even less inclined to do so now that I’ve suffered the ignominious and eerily similar end of two wall clocks.

By coincidence I caught an episode of Warehouse 13 on satellite TV last night. It’s a rather silly series about Secret Service agents assigned to a warehouse in an out-of-the-way corner of (what is already) out-of-the-way South Dakota that houses supernatural artifacts. Their assignment: to retrieve artifacts that have gone lost or stolen and to investigate reports of new ones. What I found intriguing, though, was the way in which the magic of these artifacts was constituted. Many of the objects incorporated traces of the person who had once been their owners and “behaved” accordingly. The Sylvia Plath typewriter that sucked the life and will of anyone in its vicinity, Borgia’s comb, which endows the possessor with the ability to control another person’s mind but at great personal expense. Man Ray’s camera, which enables one to transfer the youth of one person to another by superimposing photographs of the two.

Though the series is a hoot, the idea that an artifact might incorporate traces of a person is not all that strange. We “wear off” in the objects we use, and sometimes literally so, when we deposit our secretions and our scent. Hence the disgust at the idea of using another’s toothbrush, and the pleasure we have in wearing a lover’s shirt or sleeping on his pillow. We break in jeans in a way that makes them unfit for anyone else. Our shoes bear the marks of our unique, unmistakable gait (the first thing a good shoes salesman at a specialist running shop does is to ask to see the soles of your running shoes). How else can one explain the value people across the ages find in relics, both of the dead and the living. How else does one explain why people would bid for William Shatner’s kidney stone ($75,000 the final price) or a pregnancy kit whisked away from the bathroom of a hotel room that Brittney Spears was staying in?

The good thing about the case of the paraplegic clocks was that my friend Nikolas’s gift of the driftwood mobile sculpture he made for me has found its rightful place in my flat, right where the nautical clock once hung. I used to have the sculpture affixed to a tiled wall near the toilet, partly because of the water element common to both, partly because it gave me and house- and dinner-guests something interesting to look at while they were about their business. But even a materialist like me knows that the location wasn’t the most propitious. I like looking at it and it reminds me of Nikolas, though I don’t need his sculpture for that. There are some friends you carry with you all through your days, and Nikolas is one of them. But I think of the sculpture as one might amulets and talismans, hei-tiki charms and the supernatural artifacts of Warehouse 13; I feel there’s a part of my friend “in there”. It is an object of good karma; even I can understand that.

But if there are objects with good vibes or feng-shui or karma or whatever else you want to call it, there are also those with bad vibes. One is a small, antique picture frame that’s been in the flat as long as the Braun clock has been. It’s in bronze, with an intricately wrought floral border around the frame that ends at the center top in an elaborate bow, at the center of which sits a small opal.

I’ve kept it hidden in a small wooden drawer within another drawer. I don’t even like looking at it. There’s something about the frame, maybe it’s the bow at the top, the sense of a present about to be wrapped, that makes it look like a trap, poised, like the Plath typewriter, to suck out the like of the person whose image is placed within the frame. I never got rid of it. It was Matthew’s, and he just forgot about, I think. But I also felt weird about throwing it out, who knows what petulant spirit I would incite by tossing it into the garbage. It’s more the kind of thing you would consign to a forgotten attic or warehouse. I don’t have an attic but there is a sub-basement in my building that someone told me people used during WW II to hide during Gestapo raids. It’s a good story, even though I’m not sure I believe it. But it’s the right place to get rid of the frame.

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