Legacy: passing things on, sometimes to cats

While I was a professor I collected books to supplement and extend the textbook material on the mathematical specialties I taught.  By the time I decided to retire I had shelves of these specialized materials.  It was hard to accept that no longer would I need most of it.  It was a bit easier to accept that I could not send that library across the Great Plains, through a desert and over two mountain ranges.

I sweetened the parting from my library by negotiating one-by-one with my colleagues and advanced students to give them books that matched their particular interests.  Distributing books among a couple dozen folks took care of the surplus.  (And one colleague even took my small bookshelf!)

Today, a year later, one of those students told us that he decided to pursue graduate school after reading the books I chose for him.  His acceptance is in hand!  He’s off to new adventures in the fall.


During the month before we moved out, the townhouses on either side of mine were rented to undergraduates: three young ladies on one side and an engaged couple on the other.

Each of the young ladies had a kitten which they would (attempt to) walk on leashes through the common area that ran behind our townhouses.  The kittens’ adorable refusal to accept their walkers’ suggestions and the young ladies’ mounting frustrations presented an interesting spectacle for their old lady neighbor and her elderly cat.

Distractions notwithstanding, once engaged, the eye for decluttering possibilities never closes!  Cat lovers!!!!  I offered and the young ladies were delighted to accept my (strictly indoor) cat’s carpeted scratching post that was too cumbersome to move with us.

A little later I offered my never-used and by now utterly superfluous futon mattress to the couple moving in on the other side.  (Its frame had been one of my assemble-it-yourself failures that had gone to the scavengers weeks earlier.)  The couple didn’t need it, but the next thing I knew, the kittens’ keepers leapt forth gushing with delight over this treasure.  Five undergraduates promptly went to work “disappearing” that futon into the young ladies’ house.   It would be perfect, they assured me, with much corroborating detail, for the playroom they were putting together.

And the couple did end up taking my dinette table, two chairs and two enormous bookshelves.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the complex, a former student of mine and his wife were preparing to move to take new jobs.  They observed carefully these various transactions and after awhile the young husband appeared on my doorstep.  “We were wondering,” he asked, “Whether you have an extra box, one that would be big enough to hold our cat’s exercise tunnel…”

The next day one of my custom wardrobe boxes proved to be superfluous.  I brought it out, knocked on their door….  And got to watch his wife’s eyes light up like Christmas.  Of course their cat’s equipment fit into it perfectly…..

Dodging Fires: Decluttering the Grounds

The yard cleaning crew is here!

My husband estimates it’s been six years since pine needles and debris have been removed from the grounds.

Up here we need to clear up anything that might encourage a disaster during Fire Season.  We’ll be inspected by the fire marshals sooner or later.  But that’s a cover to avoid thinking about the true danger of losing the very things we work so hard to keep!

Wildfires are a new concern for this newly remarried new retiree.  Our part of the continent is enduring drought conditions and the “Butte fire” started just months after I arrived.  The fire burned from September 9 to October 1, expanded in all directions from its origin,  burned 70,868 acres, destroyed 475 homes and 343 outbuildings.  Two people were killed.  The rivers are low enough that we feared the fire could jump easily into our county and then…

Oh, I had talked about how other parts of the country have tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, blizzards, rattlesnakes, Lyme disease, economic depression, and rabies plagues, so what’s the big deal about wildfires…  The big deal is that I haven’t weathered drought and blazes before.  “God gave Noah the rainbow sign.  No more water; it’s fire next time.”

So I was determined to make clearing our grounds of flammables a high priority, time sensitive decluttering goal before the start of the next fire season.

I estimate the grade of our mountainside lot to be steeper than a seventy-one percent grade (equivalent to a forty-five degree angle) over most of the terrain.  A couple of weeks ago I found rake and manure fork, scrambled down a bit of the slope and over two days, cleared pine needles from the front yard and down the easier access side of the house.  Maybe a tenth of the whole story.

Then, behind the house, I discovered the substantial pile my husband raked up in years past.

I was overwhelmed by the size of the area to be cleared.  I was outright frightened by the extent of the debris burn — legal, outside of fire season —  it would take to dispose of it all.

My husband was equally disinclined to tackle a job of that magnitude and duration.  So we contracted yard workers.  They have elected to rake up and haul off the debris rather than burn it — which makes me happy.  By sundown we should be able to give thanks for a major yard declutteration.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

Valuelessness and Lightheartedness: Light and shadow

I wish for you all the enormous satisfaction of removing clutter, old clutter, clutter so old you’d lost track of the room buried under all of it.

Every time my husband and I filled the Patriot with clutter, every time we drove it off, left it at its destination and came home to more clear space, we breathed more deeply and smiled more readily.  It became easier and easier to believe that plans for our new marriage and our life together were coming true.

The featured image is a payload of recyclable paper: hundreds of old mimeographed (!!!!!) elementary student worksheets in math, reading comprehension and phonics that accumulated over a thirty-year career.  The lesson materials they were meant to accompany were long gone.

We offered these worksheets to the local Christian school where my husband’s deceased first wife taught for a season years earlier.  But they explained that they’ve moved all that kind of practice drill to online programs.  Save a tree.  Reduce grading time.  Eliminate paper clutter.

So.  Off to the recycler with all of it.

Sorting all those “best laid lesson plans”…  Over and over pulling up a handful of paper, riffling through it to sort recyclable worksheets from necessarily shreddable student progress reports… removing all paperclips… again and again for days and days…

Well I had lots of time to think.

It was borne in on me that time, years, decades, much more than “moth and rust,” is what destroys any value in all those resources we stash against possible need.

And…  Light and shadow: It is clutter that imprisons space much more surely than space imprisons the clutter.

Decluttering Books

Decluttering a library is …..  Nasty.

I’m an academic.  I’m married to an academic.  Who was married to a school teacher…..

Recently, my husband ran an errand to the hospital.  While waiting, I noticed a cart full of 50-cent used quick reads.

“Yes,” explained the shopkeeper, “Folks coming in for outpatient procedures don’t realize how long they’ll be waiting.  The book rack raises money that we use for supplemental equipment the doctors need….”

Weren’t we just speaking about turning clutter into blessings!!!!

With my husband’s help, three boxes of mysteries and romances aroused themselves from deep storage and drove across town.

Before I retired I would leave stacks of battered science fiction, like mewing kittens, in the computer science students’ study lounge.  Maybe it was the students or maybe the housekeeping staff took them in…

Textbooks and self-help books with private notes, explanations of exercises, handwritten charts displaying various kinds of progress, doodles scrawled in margins, are as sacred, or useless, as old diaries.  Except for a very few keepsakes I discard them securely via shredder or dump.

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have access to used book stores that will offer credit for some used books.  Some libraries will cheerfully accept your discards but others won’t and some will only take them at certain times.

In general, old editions of undergraduate textbooks are unwanted there.  But old texts are amenable to the superfluous kitten technique.  I left mine in a heap marked “free” and in no time graduating education majors snatched them up.  Just in case.  Students.  Wonderful consumers of free stuff.  Never forget their voracious capacities!

But my favorite discovery was two possible book decluttering options available through Amazon.

On the one hand anyone may set up as a vendor and use the unwanted books as the initial stock.  I have friends who do vend through Amazon for extra cash.  There are comprehensive guidelines available on Amazon’s website and loads of material and stories in various blogs about how to do this well.

On the other hand, if Amazon believes any of your books can be resold, they will offer to take them as trade-ins for a gift card credit.  They provide a postage paid UPS label and give a time window for sending the books in.  Once Amazon has approved the books you’ve sent, they tack the credit onto your account.

Here’s how you begin.

  • Sign in to our Amazon page and click on “My Account.”
  • From the righthand panel select “Your trade-in account.”
  • From the top righthand panel select “Submit your trade-ins.”
  • There is a button marked “Search for items to trade in.” Type in the ISBN of the first item you want to submit.
  • From here, you enter a conversation with the database about your situation.

You are likely to be disappointed about the absolutely wonderful books Amazon won’t accept; or by the pittance of the credit they offer for the ones they do; or frustrated by having to ask about each item at a time.  But I was delighted to remove boxes and boxes of books from my house at no cost to myself for a bit of credit which I used later for birthday presents.

Sometimes you don’t need a dumpster: part one

I just found a vendor who will buy my superfluous cell phone-service extender.  All it took was a thirty-second web search and a couple of emails and this expensive dust collector is heading out to a local used-phone dealer and repair guy.

I’ll never be inclined to set up as an Internet saleswoman and I quake at the thought of holding a garage sale.  However I have had some luck in turning a buck or two while decluttering.

Have you thought about every place you know that sells the kind of used stuff you have on hand?

I was able to sell an old guitar and an even older autoharp back to the music store where I’d first bought the guitar.  I did not get much, but I never played them myself, and I wasn’t going to have to consider how to pack and transport them across (repeat after me) the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges.

These days I’m lucky enough to live near a used bookstore that maintains a buyback policy.  If they think they can resell a book, they’ll give you a dollar quote for cash and double the quote if you want to trade it in.

I haven’t ever sold through a clothing consignment shop.  But I have bought from them.  Might be worth a try if I have the time and patience….  Usually I don’t.

And there’s Amazon.  Over the years I’ve traded back more than eight cartons of books for credit with Amazon.  The next post will outline how to do this.

Have you told your pastor about anything you want to sell?

A congregant’s washer and dryer conked out just before I was to move.  From his point of view, my departure was a blessing.

My pastor also suggested that I offer any furniture I couldn’t sell to an agency which provided shelter to abused women.  Although they didn’t take anything this time, I was happy to get the suggestion.

Have you told absolutely everybody you know about the things you want to sell?

A couple of moves and several years ago, I sold some recorders and a student model flute, to lady who ran a home school.  She worked for the town newspaper.  When I handed her my ad for initial proof-reading, she laid it aside and asked whether she could look at the instruments, herself.  Saved me the cost of the ad!

Many more moves and much longer ago I bought a washer and dryer already in the house I was renting.  When I moved out, the landlord bought them back.  He also bought an extension ladder I wasn’t going to need in my newer place that had lower ceilings.

My husband, who is equally disinclined to set up as a salesman, was able to find a buyer for his unneeded vehicle simply by letting everyone know he didn’t want it anymore.

In sum, once I’ve determined what is clutter, the American Declutterer has two guidelines.

First: All clutter must be removed completely away from house and grounds.  Moving things from a closet to the rafters of the garage does not count as decluttering.

Second: Insofar as possible, both the clutter itself and the mode of its disposal should provide as much joy and blessing as possible.

Imagining my Ideal Retirement Lifestyle

While it is true that I never regretted leaving my life as a professional cellist, about a dozen years after beginning to study mathematics I woke up and realized I wanted a banjo.

I didn’t know how to play a banjo.  But ever since I was four years old I have loved the sound of a banjo.

So I got in my car, drove to the nearest music store, had the proprietress play a couple banjos for me and bought one.  As I loaded my new banjo into my car, it felt very natural to have an instrument in my hand again.

I loved having it.  But although I poked around at it a bit I didn’t actually begin to learn to play it until many years later.

Five or six years went by.  In my mathematical life, I needed a good “professional development” project so I wrote a freshman level course which explored how various bits of math describe “music that sounds good.”

My course was approved and I taught it three times over four years, each time experiencing in my heart, thus improving my ability to teach, more of how music and mathematics enrich each other.

Then I woke up one morning and knew it was time to learn how to play my banjo.  That summer I went to banjo camp and came home with Skip to M’Lou and Short’n’n Bread firmly in my ear and occasionally accessible to my fumbling fingers.

I got all fired up about learning to play by ear.  My mental grasp of music was very different in this world where music notation isn’t central to the enterprise!  I began to wonder what an experience of mathematics would feel like if we could transmit it without notation.

When it came time to imagine my ideal retirement lifestyle, I relished the though of being able to develop these “math by ear” ideas.  I knew too that I wanted to learn more about statistics and financial math.  I planned to finish several intriguing knitting patterns.  And of course, I would keep learning how to play my banjo better and better.

Now that projects and plans were in place I could begin to settle on what to send over the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges to meet me in California.


The featured image is a snapshot of a blackboard demonstration of calculating a rhythm to fit a descriptive sentence.  We did a few of these exercises in my class.

In the next posts we’ll continue ideas for creative decluttering, otherwise known as alternatives to hiring a dumpster.

Toward finding an ideal lifestyle: decluttering dreams

The thing of it is, as we used to say, you can’t be certain of the future.  You can collect nest eggs, design intricate failsafes, pile up a glittering horde and it may all be stolen by magpies.

Once upon a time I had a musical career. I was a cellist. I played in a symphony.  I taught music theory and private cello lessons.  I chaired a division of an after school arts program. I even held a part-time instructorship at the local university.

But one day while en route between a music lesson and a rehearsal, an old Cadillac ran into the passenger side of my Nissan, my left hand caught in the steering wheel and broke. After it healed I had a slightly twisted finger and a lot of decisions to make.

You see, I could still play pretty well although the bum finger limited what I could do.  The question was whether I could live contentedly as a cellist knowing that I would always have physical limitations.

I spent a couple of years collecting a bagful of options.  I could keep the jobs that I had. I could get a graduate degree in music theory and become an academic. Or I could leave music and pursue something completely different.  But I could not pursue all of them.  I would have to choose just one direction, pursue it with all my heart and let the other dreams go.

It seems to me that this kind of choosing is at the heart of decluttering.  If we can commit to a path and turn away from others, a side benefit is that we will be able to sort things we will keep from things we must let go.

During the next year, I decided to let go of my web of part-time musical jobs.  Also, I decided that I could never be a musical academic so I let go of the graduate program in music theory.  I took a few auditions and applied to a performance track but these doors didn’t open.

So I decided to train as a high school math teacher.  Two years later, having gone to work as an adjunct tutor for the city schools while I studied, I decided against teaching high school and took my degree in pure mathematics.  A year later I was accepted for post-graduate work and never looked back.  This is the ideal: decluttering without regret.

It was a very long time before I could let my cello go.  After a few years during which I never played it, I compromised by parking it with my parents, much as my mother had given her piano to me many years earlier.  But many many years passed before I became free enough to send it off to a dealer.