Musings
A collection of our favorite short stories, poetry, zines and more.

Quitter #7: May

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fifth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part four, see Quitter #7: September.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

My first name is rumored to have a basis in a tool known as the oscilloscope, a small bench-top machine that measures the wave shape of electrical signals. The lines appearing on the screen of the oscilloscope are referred to as the “traces”, usually just one but up to several lines on a basic X,Y divided axis. When I was a kid my brother and I would mess around with our father’s oscilloscope, try to get the lines to make crazy shapes or pretend we were in a space capsule and the lines were voice transmissions from beyond some moon. We did not understand what the oscilloscope’s purpose was other than to make a bunch of squiggles on the screen when you fiddled with the knobs. And that was enough for us at the time.

We always found the oscilloscope in the middle of the workbench in my father’s shop, a small room in the corner of the enclosed breezeway dividing the house from the garage. The shop was heated, so we spent a lot of our Wintertime in there watching my father take things apart, fix something or put some piece of what-not back together. Sometimes we would help melt the solder from a variety of electronic boards and separate the capacitors and resistors into little drawers. If I close my eyes long enough and think about it, I could probably remember what the color codes on the resistors meant. We had to memorize it since we had to put the resistors in the correct drawer and couldn’t ask him every time we had to file each little piece away.

The shop was always full of disassembled VCRs, ancient game systems, black and white televisions, telephones, cable boxes, kitchen appliances. If you could plug it into a wall socket, it could be found in the shop — and usually in several different pieces. Later into our teenage and young adult years, the shop was where we would go to smoke cigarettes, drink Dad’s beer and make copies of rented movies. To all of the piles of assorted electronics, those new uses added quite a few half-full ashtrays, stacks of unlabeled video tapes and cardboard cases full of empty beer cans. The whole shop was a constant mess, a study in theoretical physics, evolution and decomposition, all in real time, all occurring only because of our existence there and our horrible habits, all ignored because of little green strings tracing across a screen.

String theory is the idea that electrons and other particles within an atom are not dots revolving around a nucleus but rather oscillating lines. In the field of theoretical physics, there are five major string theories, each one attempting to form an elusive Theory of Everything, a single mathematical formula to describe the physical interactions of the entire universe. But only this particular universe, since string theory also opens up the possibility of the mulitverse, layer upon layer of variant universes all with their own laws of physics.

The gap between Einstein’s general relativity and modern physicists’ quantum mechanics cannot be bridged without an entirely new theoretical construction. Researchers and theorists get close, discover that they need to construct another theoretical dimension or smaller particle that has a possibility of actually being observed in a real life experiment. They then test the new theory and move from there. What we can write about in a few pages of text require decades of experiments, new hypotheses, emerging talent from the university systems. Basically the five different string theories end up as untestable within any of our own sense of the word “test”.

Is it at all possible to violate the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says that disorder can never decrease but only come to an uneasy and most likely temporary equilibrium? Disorder can never be reversed (says the law); work is always undone. Any momentum towards disorder is natural, adequate in purpose, sometimes easy to see, like a laundry hamper filling with dirty socks. You may clean the socks once the bag is full but you must always introduce work and calories and heat in order to do so. Yet the socks end up back in the hamper, a bit more worn than they were previously, just as the feet they were on are a bit more worn as well. There are no solutions to avoid the eventual disorder of the socks. Simply letting them be, letting them sit completely still on the top shelf of a closet, even keeping them sealed up in the packaging they came in, does nothing but add infinitesimally small amounts of time to the universes’ plan to make those bound threads and space-age polymers into random scatters of particles.

Our own natural equilibrium most likely occurs as billions of free range molecules in the air, water and soil, not as the pliable warm flesh we are accustomed to. It is the whole mythology of “dust to dust” backed up by centuries of true observation as well as various thought experiments. My name, the shop in the breezeway, the oscilloscope — all temporary formations of matter and minutia studied with head scratching and dreams, the calculations drawn on chalk boards here and there, populating the archeology of our dim understanding of time and its infinite patience. Are we ourselves neither strings nor particles, rather just random assemblies of physical actions, chemical reactions and hypotheses about which cupboard holds the plates in a stranger’s house?


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Quitter #7: September

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fourth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part three, see Quitter #7: July.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

 

I remember it was sometime in the Fall; all day long the cool air dried my throat on its way in, the same air emerging warm and humid, personal clouds of breath falling up and away into the surrounding atmosphere. At the time I was in Western New York. That particular atmosphere was most likely gray and barely concealing the threat of snow or sleet. It was too early for snow, if I recall correctly, even for this small town sandwiched between Lakes Ontario and Erie and its lake effects.

Fallen leaves blew into the street, crashing and skittering into each other like poorly made airplanes. Against that threatening gray sky the variant colors of leaves haloed the random limbs of the nearly empty trees, the branches narrowing to the twigs at the extremities, each little wooden finger moving crisply with the air movements above. From minute to minute these trees are safely bolted to the ground by a thickened trunk and miles of root hairs and fungal partnerships, their leaves safe to depart without harming its own life.

Beginnings and ends are buried in this particular color contrast; browns and reds fidgeting against the dirty white background above us, those few hopeful, final leaves holding on to that last stage of senescence just long enough to end up right on the top of the pile, the last to land, the last to decay. With the passing hours and minutes, the leaf layer forms on the lawns and the curbs and the shrubbery of the immediate world, not only a beginning but an end point in a constant cycle.

So what am I remembering exactly? The time I am thinking of is just like any other from that point in my life — awake to the boredom of youth, brush against the boredom of family during breakfast. Get on a school bus full of variable stressors and hassles, depart and navigate the hallways and school lunch table seating. Become obsessed with vaguely defined friendships, sexual frustration and the confused and bullying tastes of peer pressure. The cycle is repeated in reverse, the bus empties me at home, the television comes on and the disaster of teenage life hides itself in the couch cushions or the sheets of an unmade bed.

When I was a teen, there were moments in which I laid in bed for an entire day, stomach down, face toward the wall. I was immobile, pushed into the mattress by a compression of something outside of my control, something I did not understand. Breath came short and shallow, the room dark enough to give shadows very little running room into the corners. The sheets on the bed warmed rapidly and cooled slowly, crumpled in the middle and taut at the corners, stagnant under my weight and despite my darting thoughts. I felt like a leaf caught in the bushes.

When you are young, you can’t assign a name to it, this thing, this “depression”. You think it is just a part of life, something that comes along with breathing and aging and carrying a heavy mammal brain. Left untreated the first bout of depression will usually lead to another several years down the road. From there the half-life continues to decrease until a handful of minutes is all that stands between the dawn and the dusk of a depressive episode. For me, I am old enough now that there are no longer horizons on which to seek shelter. It just comes on, a quickly spreading net of thoughts and inaction. There is no refuge, no chance to turn it back. It just comes.

My depression shows up and opens all my doors and windows to the elements — rain, wind, sun, volcanoes, earthquakes. I am forced to greet all of it, begrudgingly welcome all the things I have no interest in revisiting — Oh hey, remember when I punched that parking meter because I got rejected by some girl at a party? Remember when that kid threw my sneakers on the roof of the school?

There isn’t anything particularly emotional about what I feel, just a low energy custody of despair and sullenness, a cold thin soup of presence. My sighs become autonomic; I chew my teeth and vibrate my fingers imperceptibly. I lose words, become silent as a conservation of energy, stare at things as if they hold me upright in doing so.

I become a ghost unsure of my manner of haunting. Depression can be like a frost; unpredictable, furious, disappointing. There is hope that neither will come at a bad time, a time where something is needed that cannot be disrupted, a time containing plans for the future and a singular requirement for growth. A flower, like a healthy mind, brings a promise of fruit.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5

Quitter #7: July

Raining

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the third in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

 

My father taught me how to swim by lobbing me into the middle of a pool. He would throw me; I would splash in, quickly return to the surface and begin to flail around.

Between spitting and gasping I would reach for the side of the pool, basically learning to swim by lunging in the direction of the closest solid object. When I reached an edge, my father would lift me out of the water by the arms, my smooth torso brushing against the hair of his shirtless chest.

I would get a whiff of his breath — a punch of pilsner, a pinch of bourbon — just before he threw me back in. Splash in, return to the surface, and seek stability; life lessons roiling and foaming in 22,000 gallons of chlorine and algaecide.

This process continued, on and on as other children played in the water and their mothers lay on the deck on their bellies, their bikini tops untied, canned beers sweating beside their browning shoulders. No matter which side of the pool I would reach, my father would be there to pluck me from the water and toss me back out to the middle.

Sometimes he would pause to jump in the pool himself, get his cut-off jean shorts soaked and later ask the sun to dry them as he went back to educating his child.

Of course nothing bad was going to happen to me. I was bounded by giggling adults and larger children, all well aware of the lesson I was receiving. This is the way my father learned. (I was told that my paternal grandfather learned by falling into an open well.) This method was apparently the only proper way for a boy my age to “understand” the nature of swimming and its physics, a way for me to conquer the water for myself and take it as dominion. I can imagine my grandfather speaking of dominion as he repeatedly tossed my father into a pond from the edges of a boat dock. Dominion then may have been in a different context, a context of control over the minds and actions of your child, rather than that of a global lesson about viscosity and drag.

I imagine that the fear my father had once clenched in his stomach had grown old and rusty if not nostalgic, a flowered, withered and decomposed bit of experience with no current equivalent in his life. His father was dead. He no longer sought out the weaknesses in their relationship or thought that his swimming education was anything more than playful fun. It was most likely an abusive lesson just as mine was, if only temporary instead of some other long-term sorts of abuses. I guess it would be much as the childhood pain of slamming your hand in a car door tends to fully dissipate by the age of twenty.

A few years after my lessons, it was time for my brother to learn. By this time I was able to participate in the instruction, but the most I could do was laugh at how foolish he looked, how his small, bright hands slapped the water all around him, the splashes jostling various inflated pool toys around on tiny bubbly waves. Gone were my own thoughts on how much pain I felt from gulping water, how embarrassed I felt for crying and screaming, how much revenge I craved as my cold-blooded brain switched on. My brother was helpless just like I was, his face contorted into a weird crying smirk.

When we were kids, all my friends and I knew when my brother had to take a shit. He got that same skewered smirk on his face, crossing his legs at his feet, arms limp at his sides as if he were sleeping upright. He would stand in that position until the waves of peristalsis ceased for a bit and he could comfortably throw the baseball or go hiking or whatever it was we were doing at the time. My brother always denied the reasons for the time-outs and glossy eyes.

But we could all take one look and know that gravity was working on his colon, the waste in his system burrowing to freedom.

When he was nineteen, my brother jumped from the roof of a four story building, breaking most of the breakable parts of his body. His bones shattered into multiple pieces, nerve endings and memories erased forever. He had shit himself, but he was salvageable. He found out that you cannot learn how to fly the same way you learn how to swim.

A person is not like a twig or an egg shell. We mostly have the ability to mend and accept that mending in a permanent way. Sometimes the need for mending is mental and hidden from the people who fix these things. In those cases we jump. In those cases we need to jump, to hide ourselves in the quickly approaching pavement, become a part of its blackness, its impervious memory.


 Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4 | Part 5

Quitter #7: November

Deer 

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the second in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part one, see Quitter #7.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

November

I grew up knowing that come November there would be a deer hanging somewhere in the front yard, probably by the antlers or the neck and probably from the branch of a tree. Or maybe hanging out of the bed of the pickup truck. Or from a rafter in the dirt floor garage.

I knew that the stories of how that “big buck” came to be dead would be floating around the house until they could be recited, with all the groan inducing embellishments, by people in the house who could say nothing in return. This was my step-father’s personal mythology, another way to blanket us with his control. I could probably dig deep enough to remember one or two of those stories, but who gives a shit really?

My maternal grandfather also told stories, the ones that I have not forgotten on purpose, the ones about how the deer tricked him or showed him up or maybe never even existed. The stories always began with my grandfather sitting on a stump, watching his breath leave his face and disperse. There would be a cracking sound, a stick snapping close by. He would stop breathing, close his eyes, crank all possible processing power to his ears. He would triangulate, check his heartbeat and turn his head only to see nothing but the cold of a Fall morning staring back at him. He would smile at us, the story clearly ending there. He could provide lessons without lecturing, saying “you will be fooled, but don’t take it personally”.

He never gave in to my step-father’s superficial glory of shooting something in the face; when a deer was in the freezer before December my grandfather seemed satisfied with the knowledge that, with the deer’s help, he and his family would have food for the winter. He didn’t amuse in the winners and losers of what most sane people would see as a wholly lopsided conflict heavily subsidized by civilization and its tools – a heavily armed human against an unprepared, unwilling and unaware opponent.

My grandfather’s task was brutal regardless, but maybe less so as there were no mounted heads on the walls of his home like there were in our home. The need for those stuffed and preserved reminders is something that I couldn’t explain back then, but know now is an indication of small mindedness, a dedication to the outward projection of dominance when you know that you are inescapably weak inside. You are a collector with no sense of how to interact with the dead or the living, both phases of life simply reminders of inadequacy, weak interpersonal skills and low self-esteem. If you have a deer head or a stuffed fish on your wall, go look at it and ask yourself what reminder it serves that could not otherwise be captured by a photograph or poem. Is it there to show your friends and family what a fucking hero you are?

When I was twenty, I volunteered twice to travel with a New York DEC deer ager on their rounds. For fourteen hours we visited deer processing places as well as any house that had a deer hanging in the front yard. My job was to write while the ager examined teeth and called out the ages of each dead deer.

I think it was during this time that I became permanently desensitized to the sights and smells of dead non-human animals. At each processor were dozens of barrels and drums and tarps full of various parts; piles of legs next to buckets of guts and tails; lines of deer carcasses waiting to be disassembled by hacksaws, band saws and reciprocating saws, mostly frozen in rigor mortis or by the depth of cold in the evening air. Steam escaped from some of the recent arrivals, a sign that they were less than an hour dead.

There can be nothing more brutal or common or necessary than taking a life in order to eat and sustain a body. Non-human animals do it without question, without any perceptible remorse or hesitation. What makes our actions so much different?

We pull carrots from the soil, ending their run with gravity, ending their gathering of sugar and all the processes that made them a living thing. They may not scream or run or struggle much, but a carrot is a living thing nonetheless and we must kill it in order to eat it.

Eating a carrot is nothing like eating an animal, which is why many choose not to eat the latter at all. I respect that choice; it was a choice that I had once made as well. As with eating it, killing a carrot is nothing like killing an animal. Animals articulate their disappointment in our choice to kill them in blood gurgles, screams and the twitches of ending nerve impulses. We destroy them in order that we can live; we destroy them for other reasons as well, reasons that have no bearing on survival. If you do not believe that then you deny that your meal had any previous life beyond its packaging. I apologize, but I can’t let you do that.


Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Quitter #7

Quitter #7

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the first in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

I wish I could say that it was surreal the first time I butchered an animal.

It was not; it was rote, mechanical, genetic, practical. A rabbit wedged in the crotch of a tree branch, my five fingers prehensile around a knife, pulling the innards out slowly, rather unsure yet determined. I made no prehistoric grunts, just internal nods at the recognition of biology, that we beings are surely all built the same way, one long branching tube from mouth to asshole providing the physical and chemical mechanics of life; the chicken the same as the ox only smaller, the ape the same as the roach but larger.

It was early Winter. I was panting from running and following the screaming beagles as they chased on the dispersing scent of the rabbit. The dogs howled as they ran on and on, continuously circling away from me then toward me, a sloppy swing of quick cuts and almost undetectable stops, their cold galloping feet tracing lines in the snow throughout the low forest. I fired once at the rabbit as it crossed to my side, bird-shot screeching from the gun barrel and through some brambles. The ear ringing mark of a single shotgun shell echoed among the striped maples and red oaks, long cleared of leaves. I ejected the shell from the gun and took in the sweet metallic whisper of it. I was ten years old, sniffling from the cold air cracking my mouth and nostrils, looking quietly at a lump of brownish gray fur that no longer moved. My step-father stood over me pointing and pushing instructions on me.

The fur of the rabbit came off quickly, small fibers of connective tissue making a wet noise not unlike the crinkling cellophane of a return envelope. I cut small rings around each foot, first through the fur and then through the joints joining the bones, snapping each paw off and letting them dangle like grapes on a vine. The final cut severed the head from the body. All but the meat was left in a pile on the ground, the heat of the guts melting a small riddle of ridges in the snow allowing the heap to sink at different speeds to the frozen earth below. The guts and tiny head – with its dark, half closed eyes – looked like a mask resting on pink and brown snakes, unmoving as the curtain dropped on a macabre play performed for the crows.

I didn’t say any prayers at the butchering. I didn’t offer any thanks to the rabbit. I didn’t think I needed to, really. It was just a rabbit, simply a rabbit, only a rabbit, as I was told by my step-father that it was just and simply and only a rabbit. I would come to realize, far in the future and away from this gray forest, that he was always incapable of sympathy or thinking beyond his own skull.

He was a crowing man, given to expanding himself into where he never was, claiming credit for things he barely understood. He was also a cruel man, a barbarian in a yawning sense of the word, ready to raise his voice and hands against anyone smaller or weaker than himself. This is the same man who kicked my brother in the stomach for forgetting to flush the toilet; the same man who threw me up the set of concrete steps outside our home for raking the leaves incorrectly; the same man who left bruises the size of oranges just below my mother’s elbows from where he would grab her and force her to listen to every. last. word.

At dinner, my mother would ruin the rabbit. She would bake it in cheap, overly sweet tomato sauce. There was always too much onion. The result was an acidic, chewy meat served without additions no potatoes, no bread and certainly no rice. There would be periodic murmured exclamations around the table as someone would bite into a pellet from the killing shell.

The only talking came from the tinny speaker of the thirteen inch television perched on the kitchen counter. The television was always on at dinner, providing context and detail of a world outside the door of our double wide. It was on that television that I followed the Reagan presidency, learned of school closings due to snow and heard that Stevie Ray Vaughan had died in a helicopter accident.

The silence around the table was built by my step-father. If he wasn’t talking then there is no way you were. And that was the end of it. There was never any discussion about what was learned in school or how work went or what we might do over the weekend. There was nothing to indicate an existence as a family beyond all of us sitting around a table wishing we never brought this rabbit home.


 

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

One Hundred Dollars of Virtue

 Ben Franklin

 Why is Benjamin Franklin honored on the one hundred dollar bill?   Franklin wasn’t even a president, yet the “Benjamin” is the highest denomination of common money.  Franklin’s adage, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” distinguishes him among those honored with their likeness on our nation’s money. 

A founding father, Franklin led Americans two-hundred-forty years ago; his words on virtues still work today. He turned away from acquiring wealth and considered his productivity to be of service and benefit for fellow citizens.  In fact, he refused to take patents on his inventions, including the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, any of which would have generated great financial wealth.  The most valuable image on paper money is what Franklin stands for—virtue.

However, there is a vast difference between the value of money as currency for goods and services and the face value of wealth, above all, the size of corporate wealth schemes are open-ended—unchecked capitalism purely for money’s sake.  This version of wealth is dangled in our faces everyday by corporations promoting “consumerism” as a bond of greed.

It’s the nature of corporate law, lacking virtue, that creates the competitive game of lobbying for special interests and tax breaks to increase wealth, leaving behind a government that has no revenue to serve the civic good—completely in opposition to the goals of a government “by the people and for the people,” i.e. to serve civic interests and pay for it with taxes.  Today a government has emerged that accommodates corporate greed at the expense of the common good and future generations; this we notice as we awaken from the “American Dream.”

Hear ye, hear ye,  good citizen

Comparing the legal distinction between “corporate persons” and sole proprietors, a major loophole is that owners of a corporation are NOT RESPOSIBLE for its misdeeds and nobody goes to jail, whereas a sole proprietor is held accountable in business.  Whom may we point to as the instigator of incorporation vs. common people—or is it a universal genetic lack of virtues and civic responsibility?  Did you see the Devil in the mirror today—or was the Devil flying overhead in a Lear jet?

Let’s add up today’s situation: a government that hesitates to represent civic needs + corporations with plutocratic and oligopolistic wealth schemes = a similar situation, in 1776, when Franklin and others found it necessary to declare independence from a monarchy that promoted indentured servitude via a one-way trip across the Atlantic Ocean.  Now let’s add up Franklin’s $100 of virtue: you earn a living wage that sustains your household and pays taxes + a government with revenue to provide schools, transportation, police and fire departments, health care and welfare = a productive, egalitarian, culture.  

How could you afford to create and maintain a household today?  You’d be industrious enough to build your own home and it would cost less than $50,000.  You would save for a few years and build it in a few more years’ time.  You can cover future expenses because you’re debt free, earning a living wage, and because you made up your mind that wealth is not a virtue.  Fair warning if instead you “finance” the same home, the market price would be about $150,000 and you would owe $450,000 on a mortgage—it’s not a win-win situation when you are playing for goods and services and “they” are playing for wealth

International corporations found they can get even more profitable servitude by “outsourcing,” adding to their wealth, and at the same time foreclosing for the inflated price that must be paid by the people left behind without jobs, and then aggrandize the homes separated from the once-owners to generate even more wealth.  MUST WE PAY?  Did you ever hear about the Boston Tea Party event?    A citizen might not be a criminal for being in debt, but you are outcast.  Franklin dealt with prejudiced sentiment by taking civic action, which ultimately resulted in the American Revolution.

The backbone of America is citizens with living wage jobs and affordable housing, two things that myopic corporate greed has taken from us.  How do we, the ninety-nine percent today, tolerate servitude and loss of habitat?  What are your choices if you opt-out of corporate consumerism?  While some may free themselves of the wealth game by choosing to join the Gypsies, be an “Occupier,” or go “Off-Grid,” the majority wants to hear a neo-Franklin say loudly, WEALTH IS NOT A VIRTUE, and show us the way to civic action, ending this creeping glitch of corporate tyranny.


Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home.

My House: Out of Fashion and Running Out of Time

Estate sale

Amidst rumors of possible demolition, one woman wonders what will become of her childhood home and the memories created there.

It is springtime, a Sunday afternoon, and I am seated with friends in lawn chairs in the front yard of my family home, where people come and go and pay small money for furniture, ladders and silly things like buttons, all displayed on tables inside and out. The consensus after nearly two days is that this is a fantastic house, this 90-year old white brick cottage with a yard that circles out way farther than any other on the block.

Has it sold already, they wonder? These customers stay and talk, suburban neighbors I will never know who wish they’d seen the listing. Me too, I think.

Between chats, I lie back and view the world through the woven branches of our petite dogwood, where sky breaks through in cut-out shapes, a habit from childhood. My parents planted this tree once the old apple trees dotting our property toppled one by one, even overtaking our yard a few times and blocking the front door.

The dogwood now told the story of the apple trees, where I once sat and read in high-up branches. And those were reminders of the orchards that thrived here before that. Would the dogwood even remain after the sale?

After a while we simply need to laugh and invent Hallmark cards marking this strange milestone:

Rest in Peace, house that was worth more dead than alive.

There is no place like home - soon, there really won’t be!

Our thoughts are with you, though, seriously, in this economy? The place didn’t stand a chance. Just saying!

Remember, when one door closes, you order more!

Since my father’s death 14 months earlier the house had been unoccupied, save my periodic visits. The builder who’d bought it after no one else would wasn’t showing his hand. But a quick Google search found he’d eliminated the past few he’d bought and constructed replacements, “nice ones,” our agent assured us.

And ours perfectly fit the profile of a tear-down: located on a large lot, in an expensive New York suburb – and up for sale in a notoriously poor economy. Add to that the out of date fixtures and wall paper and obvious need of new paint. And, our reluctance to spend thousands of dollars to convert the house into the specimen shoppers apparently wanted.

My certainty that the house would soon be history was tempered by my arrogance. After all, wouldn’t even one family see the place, admire its cottage style windows and sunken living room and the dormers upstairs?

Built in the 1926, it was white brick punctuated by a pair of slightly crooked white brick lamp posts at the street. Linking posts and house was a slate path flanked by my mother’s flower beds. The setback gave the house a more stately air than its compact size really warranted. We guessed that it had once belonged to the estate up the road of tabloid journalist Walter Winchell.

The long ago history of the region had involved the Indians who sold Manhattan island, a Dutch aristocrat who owned just about the whole region and, later, Revolutionary War troops marching through. Our own history involved a dozen or so kids on the dead end block, the manhole cover that marked home plate and the woods we ran through to our elementary school one street over.

My parents first laid eyes on the house in 1960, after my mother found a New York Times listing for a “Dutch Cottage with apple trees and charm” and my dad learned they were house hunting.

Father and daughter 

But this was now. Our bedroom community had escalated in status as its school system moved to the top of “best” lists. The real estate market had all but collapsed, prices plunged and there were many, many homes to choose from. House hunters, were, well, specific in their wants and, our agent gently told us, they were not interested in ours.

For starters, the front door opened to a large central room, not an introductory vestibule. Then there was the eat-in kitchen. A simple rectangle between living room and dining room, it was perfect for our family of four and perfectly situated for my parents’ frequent parties. But it was small, enclosed space, not the family room-dining room-kitchen combo now in demand.

Then there was the airy master bedroom on the first floor – not, the agent said “a master suite,” and not “upstairs with the other bedrooms,” where master suites apparently belonged. I didn’t bother asking about the shed and garage, a separate barn-like building we had loved for its rafters and hiding places.

What today’s shoppers were looking for, our agent said, was “Pottery Barn.” This was the first I’d heard of the retailer as a design style. Even so, wasn’t ours the real thing? This house even had the sash windows, ceiling beams and plank flooring splashed through that store’s catalogues.

Not that it was frozen in time. The windows had recently been re-glazed. Over nearly five decades my parents had replaced a patio with a deck and hot tub, installed central air conditioning, garage door opener, burglar alarm, custom shelves and cabinets. They’d replaced a back porch with a bright living room and filled it with my mother’s Deco furnishings. My parents’ first-floor master bedroom, an add-on by a previous owner, was a sanctuary with windows on three sides.

Now, people close to me had died, many of them, in a small space of time. The family home was a hedge against the endings; a protection from obscurity. Wouldn’t the next owners want to know about us and glimpse a time when rooms were small and yards were big?

Not even a little bit. It turns out that in towns like this one, houses were regularly cleared away like the breakfast dishes so newcomers could arrange a neighborhood rather than join it. I began seeing listings for suburban “development sites;” expendable domiciles located on juicy real estate.

My own father was appalled by this brazen activity, once even forcing me to walk up the street with him as a large home was being replaced by a giant one – which he railed against loudly as we trespassed on the offender’s front lawn. A retired executive turned stringer for the local newspaper, he photographed such acts of real estate upscaling, his disdain not apparent in the captions I am guessing his editors toned down.

Now I contemplated the likely demolition of his own beloved home, the place where he’d insisted on living out his days and where he ultimately died.  And for the first time I appreciated the architectural story offered up by the 12 houses on the block. Brick, vinyl, stucco, split-level, Spanish, stone and modular, they spanned time from a single phone jack in the kitchen to wifi in every room. If they had been phased out with each new trend, I realized, our street would no longer have a yesterday.

At a high school reunion, talk of teardowns joined updates on children, careers and deaths. By then, a classmate had begun posting a sort of house death watch on Facebook. “Ok, who lived at 300 Glendale?” read one entry, above a photo of rubble. “It’s gone.”

A friend from elementary school said she actually hoped for such an end to her house now that her parents had died. Others, though, were moved by the poor prognosis for my house, recalling the center staircase and generous yard.

Months had passed with no offers. My sister and I had dropped the price. We had paid taxes that were not a lot less than my annual income. We’d paid a cleaning person, someone to cut the lawn and plow the snow. A super storm turned the basement into a bathtub that wrecked photo albums and mired my father’s WWII Purple Heart in mildew. FEMA declined to help with clean-up costs because we did not actually “live” there – a logic that did not apply to our expenses.

So, we spent several thousand dollars having the back yard virtually excavated so a drainage system could be installed. We bought a remote storm alarm. Now I got phone calls at home upstate when wind and rain pummeled the house downstate. Visits there had more to do with fixing things than gathering with friends. I developed asthma, then eczema, as the prime summer months came and went and our high-maintenance relationship – the house’s and mine – plodded on.

In the fall a builder materialized, offering less than our asking price and no details about his plans. We tried for more money and he walked, prompting us to acquiesce. I looked at a few houses he’d built in place of others I had probably seen hundreds of times. All memory of the originals was wiped clean by these multi-floored upstarts with three-bay garages and driveways as wide as a traffic lane.

Talk about awkward.  How do you tell neighbors who ask about the buyer that a construction site and not human beings would probably follow soon? You don’t. You walk a little faster as you haul junk from house to rented Dumpster, signal you are running low on time and try for answers that are not out and out lies. Things like “I don’t really know them,” and “I hear the daughter plays basketball.”

This went on until the day I broke down and tearfully told the truth to the beloved woman across the street who had moved to the block even before my family had. She said she understood, and guessed that her house would be also leveled someday soon.

And so I cleaned out every corner of the house and obsessed over things I found. We had the tag sale and reveled in the many people who loved the place, who walked out with my grandfather’s watercolors under their arms, the faded Oriental rugs and the chairs with loose legs they planned to repair.

These were not the not the people who said the house had bad bones. And they brought scraps of our family history to live with them. A neighbor I’d never met even came by to say she’d always liked our cedar tree. Who knew?

When the last day came I frantically yanked things out; scraps of wallpaper, glass shelves and shrubs packed in rich soil. I turned the key one last time. But not before I left the new owners a note asking them to consider that lives had been lived here and suggesting how nice it would be to add a room here or there rather than eliminate the place. This, I saw was operatic even by my standards.

How many other people at this moment had been only too happy to “unload a white elephant” and deposit the check? How many, like me, saw the moment as the one that separated “then” and “now?”(Hallmark,take note.)

Our house bore witness to our younger and older selves, and, with our help, lived on to mark our place in time. Houses didn’t need to die of old age, doing us humans one better. And when we moved out, successive owners might call to ask about how to turn something on or off or maybe report finding a treasure.

It had happened to my uncle. A young mother who lived in his childhood home tracked him down to tell him that during a renovation she had found his parents’ love letters and his sister’s porcelain dolls stashed in a wall. This prompted an emotional visit, a celebration of continuity. HGTV devoted hours to such stories.

My own story was shaping up more like a round of Grand Theft Auto.  After the house sold, friends did surveillance and for months reported no change. Then, they reported that the new owner’s son moved in, raising hopes the house might be spared.

But ultimately came word that the yard had been cordoned off with plastic orange fencing. Soon, our high school house death-watch reporter put out the word: “Anyone live at 154 Highland or 123 Ferndale?” he wrote, over a pair of photos of flat nothingness. “Both houses are teardowns.” I identified the wreckage on Ferndale.

I called the beloved neighbor across the street for the details. She described how she’d pulled up a chair to her living room window that day and watched a big yellow rig do its work. First, she said the roof and chimney were lifted like a jaw, then the back came down and, last, the front door tumbled as she silently voiced profanities.

“A giant dinosaur ate up this cute little house,” she said. “That was how it looked to me. And in an afternoon it was gone.”

And after looking across the street at our white house for more than 50 years, she suddenly had a view of a faded blue one on the next street that startled her at night when the lights were on. But this would not be for long, as trucks were already busy digging out a foundation for the house that would replace ours.

I had cinematic and harsh dreams, one after another, for a few weeks: The house was pristine, freshly painted and, most important, upright. Or, it was tarnished, the furnishings crumbled and family members sat around, waiting for something.

Could it have been the pumpkin-colored faux Colonial affair that went up in less than two months? (My parents and grandparents always had been a rather judgmental lot). They might have railed at the size of the new house, perhaps twice as large as ours. There was now a driveway that nearly lashed the house to the left. There was no longer a dogwood to the right. The cedar tree, the hedges: also gone.

The only point of reference was telephone pole with our house number out front.

In truth the pumpkin-colored thing wasn’t so bad. But it didn’t register as any place I’d ever been. The piano lessons, Thanksgiving dinners, adolescent angst, the visits home after breakups and visits back with new boyfriends, and, eventually, children, and then the protracted period of time dominated by my parents’ illnesses. Where was the record now?

In one last punch to the sentimental gut I found it not long ago among boxes of my father’s things. As if speaking from the grave, he furnished an account of the home’s heritage, a product he hoped to sell called “This House: A Journal.”

Created in 1987 on his IBM Selectric, it was an attractive notebook filled with lined paper, which he asked homeowners to use to document the continuous story of a house.

“When it is no longer yours, whoever comes next will be grateful for your jottings,” he explained in an introduction titled “Come on In!”

Ever the journalist, he had gone to the courthouse to get the story. He used the Journal to furnish a floor plan, the names of the builder, the previous two owners and what they’d paid. My father filled a few dozen pages with details about our family, the color scheme they’d inherited - pink and yellow! – and the updates he made alongside his father in-law. “I still recall the quiet joy of waking up those first few days in our own house,” my dad recalled on these pages 30 years after the fact.

Well, at least the acid-free pages were perfectly preserved. It would have been something to see him take out his pen and camera as the place was tumbling down. The conversation through the ages he had hoped for had been abruptly stilled.

But he might be heartened to know that another use for This House: A Journal had been born: an intrinsically precious and appreciated record of our family in its time. Corian countertops and master suites had not been nearly as important back then.

And even if I could not alter the swing of this particular pendulum, I had just one request. Could we at least retire the house number, like we do in tribute to our prized athletes?  I was sure the new owners would have no objection. And I heard Pottery Barn makes nice ones.


Jane Gottlieb is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in New York's Hudson Valley for many years.