Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Checklist for coronavirus shut-ins:

1) Assure that your family is fed and kept company;

2) Donate online to charities and small businesses;

3) Binge-watch Netflix, explore old movies and finally make time for those long-moldering classic novels.

My additional suggestion: Curate your personal archives.

No matter your age or notion of self-importance, your life-long letters, photos, books and trophies form a loosely structured portrait of your multi-compartmental self. Sorting them for the ease of your future heirs is at least as important — and satisfying — as tackling deservedly postponed chores like cleaning the garage or painting shelves.

As an Arlington guy of retirement age, I find myself with a houseful of artifacts one could place into two buckets: things that, per Marie Kondo, bring me joy; and things that my heirs, realistically, might actually appreciate. But they’re not the same things.

I am an eccentric, selective packrat. I still own student newspapers and yearbooks dating to the ‘60s and ‘70s from Williamsburg Junior High and Yorktown High School. I have trophies and team pictures from Arlington Little League, from Evening Optimist baseball to Tops Cubs football to Shirlington Trust basketball. (Too bad I mostly ignored my mother’s pleas that I write the players’ names on backs of the photos.)

In bags and trunks, I retain nearly every personal letter (plus selected later emails) I received beginning about 1969. Their layered stacks resemble an archaeological site.

And I still sloppily alphabetize — and play music on — LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and CDs. (The 8-tracks, in a moment of sanity, I trashed years ago.) Yes, modern listener, I too can access 2 million-plus songs on Alexa. But I still prefer the old formats’ warmth, album covers, liner notes and original song sequencing. And my personal tapes are irreplaceable.
My bookshelves are lined with what I boast may be the county’s best collection of books on Arlington history (more than 30).

Thanks to my mother, I still have a copy of my first stab at writing and illustrating a children’s book, which I produced as a six-year-old living in Cherrydale. (She typed it and sent it to Little Brown—still awaiting a response.) And I designate special storage for books published by my grandfather, and to house my father’s high school and college memorabilia.

So, out of kindness to my heirs, I’m creating curator rules. In most families, I’ve noticed, only one sibling per generation attends to the archives. Be kind to that relative. The younger generation today shows little receptivity for our old books, or antiques or heirloom china and silver. Hence few will mind if I’m ruthless. My college textbooks, for example, having sat statically in basements for decades, likely interest no one but me. They will go.

I’m careful to print out my best digital photos and mount them in low-tech albums. If I get really ambitious, I might even re-edit my scrapbooks so they’re chronological — not grouped by when I acquired the pictures. It will make them presentable.

Eventually I will toss my flirty letters from ex-girlfriends (my wife, for some reason, displays little interest in them). In due course.

As for the Little League trophies, I teased my mother in later life, saying she had fallen down on the job by neglecting to polish them.

If the coronavirus crisis persists, I may tackle that job too.


Recommended children’s book during the pandemic: Dr. Seuss’s 1954 opus “Horton Hears a Who.”

Recall that the plot involves an elephant in a pond who picks up a dust speck and places it protectively on a flower. He discovers it contains a tiny civilization of “Who” creatures. An evil kangaroo mocks Horton for believing the speck hosts microscopic life. “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” the elephant says.

Those itty-bitty Whos must shout to prove their existence, and the failure of one stubborn holdout jeopardizes the whole life-saving operation. Hmmmmm.