One Man’s Trash

Chicken soup for the cellar-dwelling soul

It’s tempting, especially around Easter, to think of one’s mind as a Gothic cathedral: a soaring space with ingenious masonry and glorious windows, shafts of light angling through the vastness, the grace and power and order of polished stone, the smell of incense and fresh choir robes, alcoves housing the bones of obscure saints, and off to one side a tiered rack of votive candles, the little amber fires whose holy energies keep the whole enterprise standing. Tempting, but delusional, at least in my case.

When I need a metaphor for what’s inside my skull, I look no farther than my own basement. The light of day does penetrate the windows, but since they’re block glass rather than stained, the photons come through not in shafts but in dribs and drabs. There’s no sense of grace, but there is a hint of order: footpaths amid the debris (luggage, toys, sporting goods, heaps of cardboard boxes growing softer and less linear every damp day), and cobwebbed nooks where a weary pilgrim can contemplate the carcasses of unsanctified beetles and doodlebugs or attempt to discern whether that gray thing in the corner is a knot of wood from the True Cross or an ancient hairball. In place of votives, I’ve got the pilot light on the water heater; in lieu of incense, I get a persistent whiff of natural gas, which nobody else, including the guy from CenterPoint Energy, with his super-sensitive death-scenting technology, can detect.

Clearly, I need to pitch some junk. A little spring cleaning—yeah, that’s the ticket. This basement I call a brain will never be a cathedral, but maybe if I jettison whatever I don’t plan to use, I can clear enough space to build a rec room.

First, let’s toss these notes for a piece on the economic-stimulus package. I was planning to set this up as a romantic encounter between Uncle Sam (the economy) and someone he met on (a symbolic stand-in for all of us losers who haven’t been doing enough to keep the engines of commerce humming). Of course, it was going to be in questionable taste: “You may think you’re prepared to whisper sweet nothings in Uncle Sam’s ear—and God knows he loves sweet nothings—but have you taken a good look at that ear lately? Have you noticed how gnarly and seamed it’s gotten, as if its cartilaginous gusset plates were getting iffy? Not to mention the tufts of bristly hair. Would it kill the guy to do a little manscaping? Here you are, taking this dude out on the town with money borrowed from your children and grandchildren, and he expects you to do all the stimulating. Where’s your self-respect, girlfriend?” But once you head down the road of hanky-panky with a national symbol, things get gross in a hurry. You end up with an article you can’t show to your mom. Or your high-school civics teacher. Or, hell, your barber.

This whole crate of Paul Bunyan ideas can go, too. You say you’re a Minnesota writer and you want to comment on celebrity culture? Have Paul and Babe the Blue Ox get in a feud, à la Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell. Or maybe Paul, wracked with chronic pain after years of trompin’ and hewin’ and such, gets hooked on prescription painkillers, forcing Babe to arrange an intervention. Paul battles his addiction for years, while Babe moves to Hollywood and gets a six-picture deal with Disney. Following Paul’s fatal overdose, there is a brief craze among the glitterati for wearing “Rheumatiz Ribbons”—little looped shavings of jack-pine wood, handcrafted by two nice ladies in Bemidji with a boost from Governor Pawlenty’s JOBZ program, which look fabulous when pinned to a décolleté Versace or the lapel of a Boss tux. You could give Paul his own show on the Food Network (Anything but Ox!), have him and Babe investigated for steroid abuse by the Senate Select Committee on Legendary Resource Management, or force him to suffer a jumbo nervous breakdown when he comprehends, one night after too many barrels of hard cider, just how much his profligate lumberjacking has contributed to global warming. On second, third, and fourth thought—nah.

Over here is a pile of oddments I should never have saved in the first place:

—New reality TV shows: Proofreading with the Stars, Suture Self, Pickle This!, and American Sermonators.

—Obscure provisions of tax law applicable only to Upper Midwesterners: the Lutefisk Depletion Allowance, the Stoic Eligibility Worksheet (if a member of your family goes more than three calendar months without speaking a full sentence, he or she may not be claimed as a dependent), and, for small-business owners, the Passive-Aggressive Cost Recovery Option.

—Secret blogs of barnyard animals: We are nonviolent, and yet we believe in jihad. You drive by a pasture and there we are, gathered, the very picture of peace, of patience. Do you ever wonder what we’re talking about? Your so-called poets speak of cows and contentment, as if chewing a cud were some sort of Zen practice. It is the grinding of regurgitated food. You like to believe we are sitting there with empty heads, because if our minds are vacant, your consciences can be clear. Sorry to disappoint you. We are talking jihad, my friend. Jihad by atherosclerosis.

I’m also done with this grocery bag of “Chicken Soup” parodies. Chicken Soup for the Vegan Soul—shamefully predictable. Chicken Soup for the Factory-Farm-Raised Chicken’s Soul—ditto. For personal reasons, it’s harder to part with Chicken Soup for the Soul of the Older Gentleman at the Infertility Clinic (Collection Room B), especially this passage: “Regarding the wall art…it is not meant to mock, but to inspire. The triptych of lighthouses is there as a beacon, guiding you to an ultimate truth—that there are worlds, galaxies, universes right there in your relaxed-fit Dockers. Concentrate; potentiate. The lab techs are waiting.”

Now and then I come across an obscure phrase that means next to nothing. Here’s one: “the nasal ventriloquist.” I think it has something to do with waking up disoriented at 4 a.m., believing my older son was calling for me from upstairs, then realizing that what I’d heard was my own breathing, a gusty wind hooting through an old guy’s sinuses. Here’s another: “the wry messiah.” I have no memory of writing that one down, much less of what it was supposed to signify. I’d prefer a wry messiah to a humorless one, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

Pausing for a break, I see that what seemed like progress was, in fact, nothing of the kind. The place is still a dump. Ordinarily this would be demoralizing, if not downright depressing. But hey, it’s spring, and I have a heavily leveraged economic-stimulus check coming. I can practically feel its inspiriting promise, hovering over my head like an Arby’s logo or a tongue of flame. As soon as it gets here, I can hire somebody to tidy up this basement. Maybe get an estimate on that rec room, too.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson was once an accomplished professional janitor, but in his personal life he suffers from cleaner’s block.