Monday, June 7, 2010

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts - Death Surrounds Us.

An interesting couple of weeks for me. I got a call from a woman who wanted me to come to a house and appraise a collection. It was in North Boulder, so I had a somewhat bad attitude about driving up there and looking at it. In addition she seemed kind of confused. She told me she wanted someone to “appraise” the collection as opposed to buying it. So I went up there and found an extremely unassuming house on a quiet side-street. When I went in, the woman took me to the basement where there was a HUGE DVD, record and CD collection. Everything was incredibly organized, and showed a meticulous sense of order and completeness. I started looking. I made a few offhand comments like; “wow this guy was sure organized,” or “jeez, he sure did buy a lot of teevee shows.” For the most part she was tight-lipped and didn’t respond. Finally I said, “was this your son’s collection?” taking a stab. “No” she replied, she was working for a realtor readying the house for sale. I continued looking. After perusing carefully for about a half hour I said; “this guy really loved his childhood.” She looked at me and then started to open up a little bit. It turns out the collection I was looking at was owned by a man who a couple of weeks earlier had killed the owners of the business he worked at, and then turned the gun on himself. He was pissed about his pay situation. Obviously this information changed my attitude and I became more interested and less business-like. As the details emerged, I discovered the man was just a year younger than me, well educated, and highly skilled in computers and engineering.

I told her I was not that interested in appraising the collection as much as making an offer to buy it. She said that was fine so I made arrangements to take the collection to the store and make an offer. Before I left I asked her if I could look around the house a little. She said that was fine. It was very sparse except for his collections. He had cheap, crappy furniture that looked like it never got used very much. Same with the kitchen and bathrooms - a classic loner. He slept on his couch (eschewing the four brand new beds in his bedrooms), and watched movies. Seemingly, that was the entirety of his life. I looked in a bedroom that functioned as his library. When I looked closely at the book titles, my heart sank a bit deeper. He had complete collections of Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and Nancy Drew books. His name was in them - the way we used to do when we bought new books - we would sign and date them. He did this, and it was clear this was his collection of books from his childhood. His interests were similar to mine - science fiction, boys adventure, super heroes etc. My mood was darkening by the second. This guy was a perfect example of something I have talked about for years. I believe many of us collectors are deeply involved in carefully curating the “Museum Of Me.” In other words, we are trying to accumulate and/or display all the cultural artifacts that gave our life meaning and happiness. Not everyone collects this way. Some people collect only stuff that is new and novel, or things that fit into their aesthetic sensibilities. For instance, “I’m into modern jazz,” or “I collect music from all the cultures of the world.” Some however want to create a shrine to their own life experience. I confess this is part of my own motivation for collecting. My proudest possession is the Groucho Marx 78 (“The Funniest Song In The World”) that my Mother and I sang along to when I was young. If I had to keep just one thing - it would be that 78.

It is hard to explain all the complex feelings I have surrounding this experience, but the overall mood was blue. I’ve felt sad and alone for the last couple of weeks as I pondered this man’s lonely existence and the implications it holds for all of us who collect. Here’s what I’ve come up with; do you remember the trial where the kids attempted suicide after listening to Judas Priest backwards and then tried to say it was the band’s fault for influencing them? At the time I found this to be outrageous. I believe then and now that art is really neutral, and we bring our own issues to it, not vice-versa. This is an oversimplification but I do believe that bad things happen because of the evil inherent in men’s hearts, not because of the art they are exposed to. Same with this guy in Boulder: his collection represented something good and comforting in his life, it wasn’t a symptom of his illness. I refuse to believe that holding dearly to his Hardy Boys books or DVDs of early Lassie shows made this man a murderer. In fact I think it probably kept him from acting on his impulses for a long time. It was when he could no longer hide with Shirley Temple or The Swiss Family Robinson or The Monkees that the pain of the world became too much to bare.

As I have done with many collections that touch my heart, I took a Tom Swift book home with me. His name was written in it with the date. I know the boy who wrote his name in that book was happier than the man who left it behind to commit murder. I’m trying to focus on the boy.

At the same time, more stuff happens that makes me ponder death. Gary Coleman died the same day I first went to look at the collection. I was not a big fan, or even a casual fan. I never saw his show, and didn’t really follow his post “Diff’rent Strokes” life, but all the media coverage of his sad death made me ponder the woeful fate of this man/child. The thing that gets to me is that he seems to have spent his entire adult life as a laughing stock. He brought people great happiness as an adorable child, and when he was no longer “as” cute, he wasn’t tossed aside or ignored - he was kept around as public totem of humiliation and a wasted life. The day I went to pick up the collection, another confusing public figure, Dennis Hopper, died. Unlike Gary Coleman I loved Dennis Hopper. I was totally turned on by Easy Rider and followed his career ups and downs with great interest. I always thought Hopper was a great symbol of the 60’s. He was brash and arrogant in his youth - a perfect anti-hero, and then he was pitiful and wasted in his middle age, and then he made a remarkable comeback, turning his youthful foolishness into a kind of shy humility that endeared him to a whole new generation of movie-goers, and offered a great story of redemption to baby-boomers.

I can’t pretend that there is a clear link between these events, there isn’t. I can claim that the confluence of these deaths has made me think hard about art and its confusing role in making us happy or sad, and how it reflects our life for good or ill. It ushers in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and that is why it is the most important accomplishment to come from our species.

No comments: