What I Learned From Shopping at Estate Sales

I walked into to the estate sale at 9am on Saturday and immediately knew that this was this right sort of house for me.

The very modest two bedroom house was on a cul-de-sac in one of those modest suburbs that erupted around New York City after World War II. The wall to wall grey rugs were bunched up and thread bare. There was one of those automatic stair-chairs and unopened bags of Depends in the corner. And the house was packed to the brim with stuff – a grand piano that dominated the living room, shelves and shelves of book, artwork and prints spread out over the piano for sale, and little china cups every where.

Together, all that stuff was a horror show. There was just too much of all of it, and it was covered in dust. The guy who ran the sale told me that there was even more, but the basement had gotten flood last year and all that stuff down there were just dumped in a dumpster.

It was so sad that I almost walked out of the house. The house reeked of depression and OCD. The other people at the sale were Asberger’s types looking for yet another volume of Plato’s Republic or very poor people picking up a casserole pan for a $1. I was there looking for pretty, but not terribly valuable books.

I’ve been working on one writing project or another continuously for months. Even when I had a short break for a vacation or while waiting for an editor, there was always an article on the back burner using up brain space. I have some vague plans for my next projects, but I decided to really take a couple of weeks off before starting them. I’m very burned out.

So, I decided to lean into my sporadic hobby of selling books on the Internet. I don’t do it very often. Every few months, if I have spare time between articles or while waiting for interview subjects to return my emails, I post stuff on the Internet. It’s very, very low brain work. Time consuming, but it’s nothing like brain-hurtie job of wrangling ideas into palatable words.

I’ve learned a lot from this hobby. Not just that the Modern Library series is very collectable, and that homeschoolers love old children’s biographies. I’ve learned a lot about growing old.

Walking into that house on Saturday, I made a silent promise to myself. I will not go out like this — surrounded by “treasures” which confine movement and fill the air with moldy and musty smells. When I went into the house, the junk had already been cleared out by the estate sale people and the previous day’s buyers. It was probably even worse a few weeks ago.

When I hit 70, I’m going to start selling and giving away all my stuff. I’m already going through my basement and getting rid of crap. I want a nearly empty house by the time that I’m too old to do anything about it.

There were “treasures” in the house — books when dusted off and grouped with similar items that will easily sell to young home decorators. I picked up a stack of Modern Library books and some boxed sets of Heritage Series books. I’ll decide later, if I’ll sell the boxed books for $20 a pop or as a lot for $150. I can’t help buying this stuff, because it’s like finding $100 bills on the ground. Curated, the books are valuable. In that house, they were dumpster fodder.

But I don’t want my last years weighed down by crap, and have already stopped accumulating. I rarely buy a new dish or pan anymore, except to replace something that is broken. I only buy ebooks. All our photographs are online (though some should be made into neat little books). We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there.

I want to check out with dignity. I don’t want to burden my children with getting rid of our stuff. I want to fill my later years with family and experiences, not dusty books.

The Oldest Thing in My House #2 – Books

Probably the oldest stuff in the house are my books. Steve has some old crap in the basement, like a 100-year old tiger skin from China, but we’ll get to that later. Let me show you some of my oldest books.

About twenty five years ago, I was visiting a friend who lived in a small town outside of Boston. One day, we roamed through an antique shop, and I rummaged through a basket of old books under a table. I picked up this old copy of Little Women, which is one of my favorite books, and bought it for 25 cents. I promptly put it away in a box and forgot about it.

I found it last year and put it on my Etsy shop. After doing a little research, I found out that it was a I believe it was a second edition from 1870. I sold it in couple of months for $700.

I’ve got a Robert’s Rule of Order from 1876.

I’ve got “The Red Cross” by Clara Barton from 1899, but I haven’t listed it yet.

I love this illustrated history of the Civil War from 1895. I honestly don’t want to part with this one. (Click on the link for all the beautiful and horrifically racist images inside.)

I lost today to parenting chores. Ian was home from school for the Jewish holidays, and he needed a lot of help with an engineering project. For the rest of the week, I’m continuing my break from real writing and will the time listing a huge allotment of vintage textbooks that I bought a couple of months ago for $3. Engineering textbooks from the 1930s are surprisingly collectable.

Educated: A Book Review

Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir was in my mental folder: “Books that I should read, but really don’t want to” for the past year. I thought it would fit into the poverty porn books that I’ve already read, like Hillbilly Elegy.

Not that I disliked Hillbilly Elegy. I know that that liberals don’t like it’s pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps message, but it was a good read. Anyway, I thought Educated was going to be another Hillbilly Elegy, so I didn’t feel compelled to run out and buy it even though it was on every Best of 2018 book list.

That was an error. Educated was a page turner. I read the whole thing in two marathon reading sessions over one weekend.

Westover’s family struggles with the similar mental illnesses that plagued Vance’s family. Out in the woods in Idaho, the Westover family is led by a bipolar patriarch. He turns religion into a vice, which damages the family. The kids are supposedly home schooled, but really aren’t educated at all. The mom is forced to become a midwife, so they and their neighbors will never have to enter a hospital where the government will take away their rights. The kids don’t have birth certificates, and nobody is really sure what day Tara is born. The family compulsively cans peaches and hoards guns and gasoline waiting for Judgement Day or a massacre by the government, whatever comes first.

Family members keep getting seriously injured, because the father makes really bad decisions and because one of their jobs is salvaging metal from large broken cars. When a person got injured, medical help was some homemade pot of salve, rather than a doctor in a lab coat. Most of Tara’s family was permanently disfigured from untended medical injuries.

Westover’s family is a toxic combination of mental illness, extreme religion, and bunker-style libertarianism. She manages to teach herself math to get through the ACTs and then get scholarships to go to BYU. She meets the right people who take care over her. Boom. She’s got a PhD, travels the world, writes best selling books, and lives in New York City. Which I know, because I googled her and her family for an hour or two after reading the book.

All that salve that the mom cooked up to put on the burns and gashes on her family turned out to be very lucrative. She has a huge business selling that crap on Amazon now. She employs half the county.

Tara’s dad is a really interesting character. I mean he’s clearly off his rocker, but he’s also compelling. In someways, he’s more interesting than Tara herself.

The family’s poverty had nothing to do with his work ethic. In fact, the man works himself and his kids super hard building sheds and cutting sheet metal. The kids, while not formally educated, must have been getting knowledge from somewhere, because three of the six of them got PhDs. And Tara herself doesn’t really complain about the poverty. Her issues were the lack of schooling for the kids, the lack of medical care for the family, and an abusive brother, whose problems stemmed from an untended head injury.

I’ve met people who have escaped from that world — parents with too many kids to properly supervise, a weird fatalism that comes from believing that God takes care of all things, roving bands of angry teens who do bad things. I’ve heard about worse situations that Westover’s.

I couldn’t possible live in a more opposite world than the Westover family’s rural Idado. Hyper-educated, over scheduled kids don’t even the freedom to get a paper cut here. They are escorted fifty feet to the bus stop until they are ten. Thirteen year olds put in longer days than many Wall Street brokers. Six-year old girls are professionally groomed before their first communions.

Sometimes when the high pressure world around here gets on my nerves, I day dream about packing up my family for a farm in Vermont. Something quiet and simple. In my day dream, we’re doing some nice gentlemanly farming, making artisanal goat cheese or something. This book shatters those illusions by showing how rural isolation allows craziness to go unchecked with real damage to the individuals trapped in those situations.

Steve’s Book Recommendations: Gift Guide 2018 #4

by Steve, Blog-Husband

Happy Holidays, Laura’s Fan Club!  It’s that time of year again where I share with you all the great reads I’ve enjoyed over the past year.  This year I’ve gone down the rabbit-hole of the 17th Century Connecticut Valley, binding together the various branches of my Puritan forefathers.  Golly, were they a fertile bunch.  But I’ve learned a lot about early colonial New England, and I urge you to learn a lot too.  Let’s take a look at The Great Migration, shall we?

Fraser, Rebecca.  The Mayflower:  The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America.  A pretty good read, relatively light.  Fraser follows the Winslow family over the course of the mid-17th Century, with their successes and failures.

Leach, Douglas Edward.  Flintlock and Tomahawk:  New England in King Philip’s War.  A classic. Published over fifty years ago, this history is still among the standard studies of the era.

Rowlandson, Mary.  The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.  The first bestseller in American history, becoming the model of one of the most popular genres in early American letters:  the captivity narrative.  Everybody at the time wanted to read about Mary’s harrowing experience of King Philip’s War.

Williams, John.  The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion.  Another captivity narrative, this one occurring in the aftermath of the Deerfield Massacre of 1704.

Cooney, Caroline B.  The Ransom of Mercy Carter.  I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s in the queue.  The book is a little off the path for me; it’s teen girl fiction.  But it looks interesting, not only because Mercy Carter is my second cousin nine-times removed (yes, she is a real historical figure). It seems to be a well-regarded proper historical fiction.  Mercy was indeed captured at Deerfield, marched to Quebec, and voluntarily became a member of the Kahnawake community.  Tweens and teens captured by Native Americans did occasionally decide to re-identify themselves as members of a culture totally different from the one in which they grew up.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

It’s definitely “Eclectic Reading Saturday.” I just skim read a library copy of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, and liked it enough to order it from Amazon, so I could write in it. Then I finished off the latest in a long romance series, which was disappointing, but I’m so committed to the series, I’m sure I’ll buy the next one as well.

And then I finally read the cover story in The Atlantic about how the kids aren’t having sex anymore.  There are a lot of theories why – online porn, stress, #metoo movement, social awkwardness. I don’t think that that the author ultimately settled on one reason for the drop off in sexual activity, but it was still a good article. I highly suggest reading the article online, because it’s necessary to google terms from time to time.

I’ve been interviewing 20-somethings for a larger project that I’m working on. It has nothing to do with sex, but it touches on some of the themes in this article. I won’t go into it now, but I do sometimes think that I want to scoop up my children and relocate to Vermont or Ottawa and learn how to live off the land.

So, is this drop off in sexuality a good thing or a bad thing? Declining teen birth rate and abortion rates are good, but the causes of the decline in sexuality are all deeply unhealthy – online porn use, social awkwardness, job stress. And the people that the author interviews are seriously unhappy and isolated. We’re ready for a major correction.

Tom Wolfe on Graduate School

Very sorry about Tom Wolfe’s passing. I loved Bonfire of the Vanities.

Here’s what Wolfe said about going to grad school.

I had just spent five years in graduate school, a statement that may mean nothing to people who never served such a stretch; it is the explanation, nonetheless. I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase—”graduate school”—and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic over boil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.