Death By Clutter

Death By Clutter

Yesterday being Friday, an incoming e-mail from WordPress alerted me to their First Friday site, where new bloggers can publish their first post and get feedback on their writing, their layout, any tips on what could improve their site. I enjoy spending half an hour or so checking out some of the new blogs and sometimes leave a tip or two for newbies.

One of the sites I came across on First Friday was this one from a Nebraska poet: A Life Simply Lived. While she appears to have other blogs already, her first post on this site was about the how and why of dealing with clutter. She offers some fairly standard advice; The FlyLady would approve. 🙂  Click here to read 8 Steps to Simplify Your Life

Reading her post reminded me of this story from years ago:

When we lived in SW Ontario we read a news item one day describing a tragic account of the deaths of two elderly men who lived alone on a farm or an acreage in Perth County.

It seems these two brothers subscribed to the daily papers and never threw any away. Who knows exactly why hoarders hoard? There’s usually some valid reason that starts it off, but then something clicks in a person’s brain and they become helpless to stop themselves. So it was with these two. Possibly they thought they may someday need to look up some information.

Anyway, they stacked their old papers against the walls of their little house, and when those spaces were all filled, they moved in a row. This process kept on until they had newspapers stacked as high as they could reach in every room of the house, with tunnels going through like a maze.

By this time the one brother was bedfast and the other was caring for him, going out for groceries, cooking and such. Then one day one of the walls of newspapers came down in a avalanche on top of the caregiver brother and killed or completely mobilized him. At any rate he died fairly quickly, while the other brother, unable to leave his bed, likely died of thirst.

They’d been dead for some weeks before their bodies were discovered. A self-inflicted tragedy.


The Cure for Fancy Words

In response to Judy Dykstra-Brown’s poem using oodles of impressive words, I offer the experience of Ben Franklin, an episode that led to deep contrition, when he tried to show himself wise. My apologies if you’ve read this before.

At one point in Ben Franklin’s youth he became enchanted with impressive-sounding words. One day he told his mother, “I’ve imbibed an acephalous mollusc.”

She gasped. Thinking he’d eaten some poison she promptly dosed him with a foul-tasting concoction that made him vomit. The poor boy retched for hours. Once his stomach was settled again, he told his mother all he’d done was eaten an oyster.

“You naughty boy, scaring the wits out of me like that!” And she gave him a good thrashing.

He says this experience cured him of his liking for pomposity; that day he decided he’d never again use fancy words when simple ones would do.

We’ll Never Surrender —Maybe

The Word Press daily prompt word today is doubt. Curious, I picked up my book of quotes, Words of Wisdom, and found this gem:

“The greatest quality of leadership is the ability to hide your panic from the others.”

business-peopleI hope leaders don’t go around in secret panic, but we know that every undertaking has the possibility of failure. A good leader won’t rattle on about his misgivings and the possibility of impending disaster. He weighs his options, decides on a course, and rallies the troops.

As Winston Churchill once did with his rousing speech:
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

He didn’t say:
We shall try to defend our island as best we can and hold out as long as we can, though it’s going to be a pretty tough go. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender until we have to.

Or do you all think we should rather give in now already? After all, we may not win. The enemy army is pretty strong, you know, and well organized. They may defeat our army, overrun our island and slaughter us all. But still, I think we should do our best to repel them — or would we be better off to wave the white flag and avoid all that bloodshed?

Not very inspiring.

How often in our day-to-day lives don’t we need people with courage and confidence? The following incident came to mind:

The teen son of a friend was doing some quick welding one day and a sliver of metal landed in his eye. My friend drove him to the medical clinic, then held her breath as the doctor took a razor-sharp blade and scraped the surface of the boy’s eyeball to dislodge the sliver.

She trembled, knowing one slip of that blade could cause permanent damage, but seeing the doctor’s confidence and steady hand gave her courage. A moment later the sliver was removed. My friend sighed with relief as she and her son left the office, prescription for antibiotic drops in hand.

Imagine yourself in that situation. How confident would you feel with a nervous doctor dithering away as he examined your child’s eye? Maybe he’d say, “Hmm… I’m not sure if I can get this out. I’ll give it a shot, but one slip of my blade and I’d slice his eyeball. I hope that won’t happen, because then infection might set in and he’d be blind in that eye for the rest of his life. I trust I can hold my hand steady enough, but I get a bit shaky when I’m tense, you see.”

Then he picks up the blade. Would you let him have a go at the child’s eye?

Granted, there’s the old “Look before you leap” advice. Yet prudence — thinking the matter through before acting — is a different species than the debilitating worm of doubt.

Super Tact

Here’s my response to today’s Word Press daily prompt: Unseen


Apparently US President Abraham Lincoln was noted not only as an honest man, but also a very tactful person. He also possessed a dry humor which he used on occasion to deflate some acquaintance who seemed to be too full of his own importance.

He had occasion to use his tact one day when a friend took him to see a highly-acclaimed painting. Honest Abe studied the picture, then told his friend, “This painter is very good and observes the Lord’s Commandment. I think that he has not made to himself any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth.”

Fool’s Gold

“Where are we now, Skipper?” asked Will, an old prospector on his way back to the gold rush in the West. Mindful of the lonely months ahead, he felt like talking and was glad to find the boat’s skipper standing alone on deck.

“See those two piles of stones up on the hillside and the big cross beside them?” Skipper pointed toward the left riverbank. “They mark a cemetery and when we see those, we’re close to the Louisiana border. Have you never been down the Mississippi before?”

“Nope. Grew up in Ohio and headed west by wagon train. Gold fever hit me somewhere along the way and I’ve spent most of my life panning the small streams in the Sierra mountains. Spent the winter visiting my family in St Louis, now I’m headed back to California. Thought I’d try going by Panama this time but I likely won’t ever see these waters again.”

“Had much success panning for gold?” Skipper asked. He was eying another passenger who wandered by right then and paused to lean against the railing.

Will’s gaze followed the captain’s as he watched the other gent. The man seemed to be studying the swirling waters below. Will wondered what was going through the passenger’s mind. Homesick maybe?

Then he turned back to the skipper. “I’ve found my share of gold – and spent most of it, too. I still have enough with me to pay my fare and buy another stake when I get to California. I hope to find a lot more yet before I die. I gather a lot of the fellows here are in the same straits: enough left to get back and stake themselves when they arrive. And big dreams.”

Skipper tugged at his ear. “Well, I wish you all luck. It’ll be good for my business if this gold rush pays off.” His eyes twinkled as he added, “Sometimes I get a touch of gold fever myself. But my wife threatens to dose me with sulphur and molasses whenever I bring up the subject. You know how a woman is: feet planted in her own garden. My Pearl won’t be parted from her home and family to sit for months in a log  cabin in some lonesome valley.”

Will contemplated the drifting clouds overhead, thinking of the family he was leaving behind, the faces he may never see again. “Well, you know, that’s not such a bad thing, neither. Being near your kinfolk is worth something – maybe even more than gold.” He watched a pair of gulls swoop down over the water. “To each his own, I guess.”

Skipper laughed heartily and slapped Will on the back. “You’re right there. Now I’d better go join our pilot. Sun’s going down, the mist is starting to rise on the river. There are a few rocks and a wreck or two lurking in the waters ahead we want to dodge.” The Skipper turned and headed across the deck.

Will was going to say a few words to the fellow nearby, but he was walking away, too. Will had taken note of him earlier and wondered why the man wasn’t more sociable – but then, some folks weren’t. His privilege. To each his own. Will sat down on the deck, his back propped against a wall, to ponder life, love, and this mad pursuit of gold.

Fifteen minutes later there was a jolt and some scraping. Will froze when he heard the splintering sound from below. The paddle-wheeler had struck something! The ship’s horn sounded an alert and men poured out onto the deck from every quarter.

As Will jumped to his feet he felt the boat list to one side and settle lower in the water. Crew members dashed over to the lifeboats and started lowering them into the water. Well, I’ll be hog-tied, he thought. Now we’re gonna get a bath.

A booming voice came over the bullhorn. “This is your Skipper. A sunken wreck has punched a hole in our hull. We’re taking on water. Into the life boats, all those who can’t swim. Those who can, swim for shore. I know this is hard, but leave everything behind but your skin or you won’t make it.”

Passengers milled around as the crew launched the lifeboats. Those who thought they could make it themselves stripped off their excess clothing and boots, dove into the river and paddled for shore. The boat sank even lower in the water.

“I ain’t no seal,” Will told one crewman, who shoved him into a lifeboat with so many others the small boat sank low in the water.

“That’s all we can take, ” the lifeboat occupants shouted. The two crewmen manning the oars started for shore, hoping to escape any explosions and the suction of the ship going down. The swimmers, likely aware of the same dangers, distanced themselves as fast as they were able.

A few minutes later Will looked back from the lifeboat and saw that fellow who’d listened to his conversation with the Skipper. He was dashing across the deck. “Hey, there’s one man still aboard,” he told the crew members on his boat.

One of them, a stoker black with coal dust, watched the passenger disappear into one of the cabins. “What’s he doing anyway? Skipper said to leave everything. He’s fooling around too long.”

“He better know how to swim,” the other oarsman muttered. “And he’d better get started real soon ’cause she’ll be going down any minute. None of the boats can risk getting close to her now to pick him up.”

“Look, here he comes now,” someone said and they all turned to watch as the last man threw himself into the water. He was trying to swim, but floundering badly. The men in the boat gasped as the fellow was sucked under the water. They held their breaths waiting for him to surface again, and were horrified when he didn’t.

“The poor guy never had a chance,” someone said. “Why did he wait so long? Why didn’t he get into a lifeboat if he couldn’t swim?”

Several men in the lifeboat nodded in agreement, others shook their heads sadly. Then they all turned their faces toward shore.

The prospectors, except for that one, were picked up the next morning by another steamer heading down the Mississippi. They sat on the deck in the hot sun and there wasn’t much wiggle room, but they were thankful to be alive.

A few days later Will was at an eating place in New Orleans having his dinner when the skipper of the sunken ship walked in. He waved at Skipper to come join him.

Skipper clapped Will on the back and settled himself on a chair beside the prospector. “So how are you making out, Old Timer? Are you able to get enough together for your passage to California?” He nodded to the waiter, who brought him a steaming mug of coffee.

“Well, I did carry a few nuggets on me so’s I’d have something handy if I needed it. Good thing, too; now I can afford this meal.” He chuckled, then added soberly, “When I got here I sent a telegraph to my family about the disaster. I reckon they’d read in the newspaper about the ship sinking and be right glad to hear I survived. My brother wired back that they’ve passed the hat amongst them and are sending me enough for my ticket and grubstake. Soon as it gets here, I’ll be off. Unless I change my mind, that is.”

Skipper took a careful sip from the tin mug in front of him. “Yeah, something like this sure makes a person think. I’m so thankful I only lost one passenger. Could have been much worse.” He was quiet a moment, then added, “And I guess that was his own fault after all.”

“Oh? For staying behind so long?”

“No, that wasn’t his problem. I heard that when the searchers dragged his body from the river, they found bags of gold dust tied around his waist. That’s what pulled him down.”

Will’s eyes bulged. “Well, I’ll be hog-tied an’ muck-raked!” He remembered the man thrashing in the water and how strange it had seemed when he went straight down. He rubbed his jaw with his thumb. “Guess that explains it. Wasn’t willing to leave his gold behind.”

“Hmph!” Skipper grunted in disgust. “I know for a fact he never brought those bags on board. It took him so much longer getting away from the ship because while you fellows were heading for shore, he was going through all your trunks and helping himself to your gold.”

Will stared at the Skipper for a moment while that truth sank in. “Well, I’ll be swallowed by a whale, spat out and hung up to dry! Risked his life to steal other men’s gold – and never lived to spend an ounce of it.”

“Guess he thought he’d make it somehow,” the skipper replied in a grave tone. “Probably never crossed his mind that wet gold dust is heavy. I wonder what the Lord said to him when he got to those pearly gates?”

Will shook his head. “Now that’s what you call FOOL’S gold.”

I wrote this story in 2013 and posted it on my Christine Composes blog. This is the type of writing I really enjoy: taking an actual incident and wrapping it in fiction. I found the seed for this tale in the April 1970 edition of “Our Daily Bread.”

Here Girl, Take This Doll!

Christmas Shopping– 1934 Version

Oh, how Mabel hated those dolls! In January, as she and her fellow salesgirls packed the unsold ones away, the staff was so glad to see the end of them.

She remembered the day they unpacked the new Shirley Temple dolls. Clerks from other departments all stopped to look, all the ladies ooo-ing & aww-ing over how cute they were. And the variety of outfits they came with! Toy department workers joked about buying one for themselves and playing with it on the sly. Some of the ladies were saving their money to buy one for a daughter or niece.

By the end of November miniature Shirley Temples were lined up in neat rows on the toy shelves, waiting for Christmas gift-buyers. They looked so appealing, but were pricey for the times; Mabel knew folks on Relief would never be able to afford one. She never dreamed she’d see this sad reality played out day after day for weeks.

Child actress Shirley Temple came along in the 1930?s, in the midst of the Great Depression. She was an instant hit with her sweet voice, big hazel eyes and bouncing golden ringlets; reviewers were saying she symbolized hope to Depression-weary people. She looked like “the good old days”: she wasn’t pale; her cheeks weren’t hollow; her arms and legs weren’t just sticks. She had the spunk to sing and tap dance her way into people’s hearts.

Someone in Hollywood decided a good way to market their child star was to put out replica dolls in time for Christmas sales. And Eaton’s, a big Canadian department store where Mabel worked, stocked these dolls just like a lot of others. Thus began a month of torture for the salesgirls who worked there.

Little girls started coming as soon as the staff put the dolls on display. All children, rich or poor, made the rounds of the huge Eaton’s toy display just to ogle, but the little girls would wander back to the doll shelves. there they’d stand and stare – sometimes for an hour – at those beautiful dolls.

Mabel wondered if every girl in the city was coming in. Some of them really tore at your heart, too. She’d see a little waif straggle by in a much-patched coat, wearing rubbers borrowed from someone they actually fitted. The next day some other girl – probably a sister or a cousin – would be standing there in that same shabby coat, wearing those same floppy rubbers. Relief payments covered food and housing, but recipients were given nothing for “extras” like clothing. A lot of these girls weren’t in school because they hadn’t shoes or clothes of their own fit to wear. But they could still dream.

Maybe some of them are Maria’s sisters, she thought sadly. How many of these girls are the daughters of immigrants, surviving on whatever they can scrounge?

Mabel and Maria became school friends soon after Maria’s family arrived in Winnipeg. Maria’s father had accepted a job in the city back in the early ‘20s when city was welcoming immigrants. The economy was booming and Canada needed more workers, so the Canadian government had streamlined the immigration process for many Europeans.

Maria’s father had worked hard to get ahead. They were saving to buy a house when the Stock Market crashed. When jobs started dying up immigrants were the first laid off and he got the axe, too. Then when those same immigrants applied for relief, they were handed a form to sign…

“I’m sure glad my brother Joe went with him,” Maria told her later. “Dad can’t read English well enough to understand it all. He didn’t know he’d be agreeing to have us all sent back to Poland. We don’t want to go back! This is our home now.

“He refused to sign, but then he was told if he didn’t, he couldn’t get any Relief. Dad came home and just sat down and cried. Joe said they hadn’t had food in the house for two days before Dad was desperate enough to apply – and then he was turned down!”

Maria was married by then; she and her husband were on Relief themselves and couldn’t help much. But her Canadian-born father-in-law – bless his heart– faced the ridicule of his neighbors and allowed her family to live in his basement rent-free. Still, Mabel wondered how a family could survive on nothing.

By the first week in December every time Mabel walked down that aisle she saw the wistful eyes of a dozen little girls looking up at her. Girls who badly needed food but dreamed instead of a beautiful doll for Christmas. To see those thin little girls standing in front of the display day after day, with eyes so full of longing – dreaming an impossible dream – finally broke her heart.

One day she snapped. She managed to hold on long enough to make it to the staff room before she burst into tears. “ I can’t stand it!” she shrieked. “I just can’t do this anymore. Get rid of those dolls – every last one! I can’t bear to see them one more day.”

Pearl, one of the other sales girls calmed her down. “Most of us feel that way. But Christmas will soon be past; try and hang on just two more weeks.”

Vera was in the staff room, too. “I may have a break-down, too,” she told them. “I’m so tempted…one of these days I’m just going to start grabbing dolls off the shelves and handing them out to every little ragamuffin I see. When the police come and arrest me, I’ll plead insanity.”

“Oh, I’d love to see that,” Pearl said with a laugh. “But you need your job. We all need our jobs to make it through these times. Maybe next year things will start to look up.”

“Yeah, maybe next Christmas there’ll be jobs for dads and presents for children again,” Vera replied, without enthusiasm.

How much longer could this Depression last?


Historical note:
I’ve invented Mabel and her thoughts, but the setting was very real. According to one Eaton’s sales girl, they had all they could handle watching those starving girls wander in every day and just stare at those dolls. She’s the “Vera” in this tale.

I sis a search for when Shirley Temple dolls first came on the market; they seem to have made their appearance for the 1934 Christmas season. Whether they were introduced in western Canada that Christmas or the next I’m not sure.

To our national shame, when things got tough in Canada immigrants with odd-sounding names or strange accents were usually denied Relief. Many were whisked away on trains to Halifax, put on boats and shipped back with no legalities, not even allowed a phone call.

As to Maria’s father-in-law, I’ll quote one Manitoba politician of the time:
“When those foreigners from across the tracks apply for Relief, we just show them a blank application for voluntary deportation. Believe me, they don’t come back. It’s simple, but it has saved the city a lot of money.”

Word Press Daily prompt: Tempted