We embarked on some personal archeology this past weekend. Which is to say, we cleaned the garage.
We do this periodically. What’s interesting is that we get rid of stuff in layers: our own private dig. We keep things we don’t use, if we have a place for them somewhere, only to finally send them off to junk heaven a few years down the line. And so every time we tackle this job from hell, we get yet another reminder of the way we were.
Among the things we excavated on Sunday (some of which we chucked, some we saved): An ornate, heavy 70’s-era wrought iron wine opener, the kind with a fat lever, that stands three-feet tall on a bar (Never used it.) A paper shredder. (Never used that either) A year’s worth of paper grocery bags equivalent to all the days we forgot to bring our cloth bags. Black garbage sacks of deeply unattractive clothing and shoes. Florist vases. Coffee mugs with stupid sayings. The cedar-lined foot locker my husband brought to college when he was 17. Early edition Nancy Drew books. My grandmother’s cutglass punch bowl. Of course we saved this one, though we haven’t made punch since we were newlywed and broke.
(At this point, I should probably mention that just before my husband left for an emergency coffee run, we had a CSI moment when he chucked a box of old files into the overflowing recycling cart — along with his car keys, which fell to the bottom of the bin. Guess how we got them out.)
But the most revealing was the stuff left over from our family’s youth. Fisher Price people that came with us twice to Europe. Boxes of picture books. Plastic trophies with signed softballs. Cabbage Patch Kids. A disco ball and lava lamp from one kid’s college days. A box of hippie posters, Tarot cards and the like from the other’s. What we didn’t find — had we thrown these out at the last go-round? — were the numerous boy-band posters or boxes of 80’s era cassette tapes. Bell Biv Devoe, anyone?
So there you are. We could wax nostalgic about a lot of these things. But there’s a lot of blackmail material, too (ahem: boy bands?) But here’s the thing. No matter how embarrassing these artifacts are, how incongruous with our current self-image, we deny at our own peril this roadmap of who we were that has led us to who we are.
All this crystalized for me when I clicked onto Maureen Dowd Wednesday morning and found a reference to Tuesday’s Oprah, which reunited Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, the stars of 1973’s iconic love story, “The Way We Were.” Surely, you’ve seen the movie. If not, you probably recognize the lyrics of the theme song? Misty watercolor memories. Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind…
Anyway, Dowd led me straight to Oprah where I found Redford talking about why he repeatedly turned down one of the most romantic leads ever. His role, a good-looking preppie and would-be novelist for whom things had always come easy, was too one dimensional, Redford said. 100 percent true to type. And thus, uninteresting. He kept saying no — until he found that flaw, that inconsistency that suddenly made the role real.
And here’s the point. Staying completely true to type, refusing to own our inner geeks, denying those hints of who we were or those embarrassing inconsistencies is not only dull but exhausting, too, when every decision we make — from what we wear to what we do — must conform to the standards set out by some arbiter of taste. Or type.
Look no further than Facebook, where the individual presentation of self is often calculated and predictable. One-dimensional. Which is too bad, really. Because how much more interesting, for example, is the intellectual who can talk about both Donnie Darko — and The Hangover. Or the feminist who once played with dolls and can teach you how to hide your under-eye circles. Or the fashionista who laces up her soccer cleats once a week. Or the big city scenester who also loves cheesy holiday movies that make her cry. Or the foodie who loved doughnuts even before they were declared cool. Or the writer who can freely admit she doesn’t have a novel in the drawer — and likely never will.
Something we heard over and over again when we were researching our book was that one sure route out of the choice conundrum is to know yourself. Your real self. That’s not who you’ll find on your Facebook page. It’s more than likely the self that’s hidden in the back of your garage.
But meanwhile, back to Redford: The flaw he excavated? Deep inside the facade of the preppie for whom everything came easy was a guy who was terrified of expectations, especially the ones pushed on him by Streisand’s character, who wanted him to be, well, more. And there it was. The crack that made him real. That gave his character depth. And there, too, was the clash that ultimately led to one of the most heartbreaking moments in movie history.
Whew. Cue the music. (Note: spoiler alert)