Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Got a Match?

It’s amazing how much paper a couple can accumulate over 35 years. Not just junk mail, but things like tax papers, ancient loan documents, medical receipts, old utility bills, Christmas and birthday cards, kindergarten art from a niece who just graduated high school… Our personal accumulation nearly fills an entire room—the fourth bedroom upstairs which we have designated as “office,” but more closely resembles a combination flea market/storage unit/dead file cellar of the IRS. On top of three decades of our personal paperwork, I have five huge boxes of papers from the restaurant, which I have been exhorted to save for seven years (oh, boy…I get to shuffle this stuff around until 2019!) And I have two boxes of my parents’ files with which I cannot seem to make myself part (Mom died almost four years ago; Dad has been gone since 1999.)

Since “retiring,” one thing that has kept me occupied is Crap Control. For five years we were too busy to do anything more than find an out-of-the-way place to shove Things That Need To Be Dealt With (Later!). I have gone through my closet and drawers at least three times in three months; once upon a time, if I managed that undertaking once a year I felt smugly accomplished. Goodwill is thinking about giving me my own donation truck.

I’ve waded into two of the three most intimidating spaces on our property: the office and the garage. But I can only bear to be in either space for about four or five hours at a time, so the work is not exactly going along at a record pace. And I haven’t yet mustered the courage to tackle Crap Zone #1: the back yard storage shed—the repository for things that haven’t seen the light of day since we moved here 10 ½ years ago. Just thinking about what could be in there—dead or alive—keeps me safely paralyzed on the outside of the shed door.

Part of the problem of dealing with trash paper is the fear associated with just throwing it in the garbage. Much of this hubbub, I’m sure, is circulated by the guys who make paper shredders. I fail to see how someone could harm me if they dug in my trash and unearthed thirty-year-old canceled checks from a long-defunct bank two thousand miles from here. But someone insists that is the case. So a box containing these very things molders on a shelf in our garage, collecting dust and whatever insects eat old paper. Bookworms?

Oh, we have a shredder. But, really…what a pain! It’s hardly heavy duty, and can only eat about three sheets of paper at a time. Before you can even flip the switch, you have to sort through your entire pile of shreds-to-be and remove paperclips, staples, plastic faux credit cards (inserted by junk mail circulators in order to force you to OPEN the junk mail) —anything which might stick in the mechanical craw. Then, you kneel in front of the infernal machine for hours in order to dispatch a pile that represents a drop in your personal ocean of junk paper. When you’re all done, you have a migraine from the shrill whine the thing emits while ruminating, AND you still have bags and bags of…paper! Only now it’s in the form of flyaway shreds that you will chase around and find under furniture for months. I knew there had to be a better way. And of course there is. Fire!

As my house has two fireplaces, you’d think the “burn the suckers!” paper option would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the upstairs fireplace is one of those hit the button/flame-on affairs, and the one in the family room has a pellet stove insert. The only things I’ll be burning in my fireplaces are natural gas and little wooden rabbit pellets. No help there. And I have a propane fire pit out on the deck, along with a gas barbecue grill. No help there, either.

Ah…but I DO have an ancient kettle grill (a 33-year-old K-mart version of a faux-Weber) that I have discovered is a capital stand-in for the noisy, messy, slower-than-snot shredder. Now, when I come away from one of my ninja-strike forays into the Crap Zones with a box of files that have been given the official thumbs-down, I grab my Bic and a long-handled tongs and adjourn to the back yard to grill some aged-to-perfection cellulose.

The last pile I barbecued was particularly toothsome: tax files from 2001 and earlier. There is just something appealingly risky about destroying those thin, yellowing sheaves that were once all that stood between you and a prison sentence. Putting the torch to them felt like personally thumbing my nose and chanting, “Nyah-nyah!” at J. Edgar Hoover. Or Doug Shulman. Or whoever.

But beyond that, it was a most cathartic undertaking. I burned some years that I would have joyfully ignited as they were happening. 1994—which began with my “dream job” blowing up in my face, and ended with major surgery and a cancer scare. 1995—probably the worst year of my life. My sister died, I had about 500 jobs (just the w-2’s for that year created a fireball that could have burned down the house). 1999—Dad passed away early that year, and another thick sheaf of w-2’s bespoke the heartache of trying to recover from that grief. It felt so good to watch those years singe and flame, blacken and turn to harmless ashes. Perhaps the unintended ritual helped, in some small way, to burn away the debris of those years that has stuck to my heart.

With about 10% of the necessary Crap Control completed, I anticipate several more bonfires before I’m finished. I might even have to look into getting myself an actual burning barrel; the kettle grill does get a bit dicey when the wind comes up and whisks things out of it before I can clamp the lid down. So if you should spot a bright orange glow emanating from somewhere in the backstreets of Scappoose, that will be me setting fire to a bunch of old papers and a few old demons.


  1. We did something similar when we left Arizona....only I did not have the option to I had to shred...o.m.g. annoying. But then I used all that shredded paper as filler for packing, not the best idea (messy)....

    So, the fact that you can burn it! PERFECT!

  2. I didn't say I could burn... I said I do!