December in Germany – if you have kids – means you will find yourself more than once at the dreaded Christmas Market. You will be informed that your offspring wants to peruse the various crap for sale, eat cotton candy, ride the carousel. Buying three rides at once is cheaper. Around and around they go as your toes turn numb. Again! Again! No matter how many times, you always end up with one leftover chip in your pocket after the Christmas Market has disappeared, wondering, what now?



There is something so tragic about finding compromising images of strangers. I have to take them home with me, even though I don’t really want them around – I have enough photographs of people I know – but how could I just leave them there? That hopefull young girl in her yellow bikini languishing in a moldy cardboard box nestled between all the Nazi wedding portraits. The little boy left on top of a stack of encyclopedias (I resisted the urge to take them, too) next to a door where the dogs pee. And what monster throws their kid’s school picture out anyway?



What was it? A No Parking sign? Part of a car? A cleaver? A map of the great lakes? I found it in the street while running over piles of dead fishflies in 95-degree suburban Detroit heat. Then I carried it like the Olympic torch in my sweaty palm for another 4 miles and collapsed in my father’s kitchen. I suppose we have to take it home with us, said M. It was added to the stockpile of miscellaneous debris I had collected so far for the annual import: baking powder, vanilla, various bottles of vitamins, some old aprons, a stray baseball, 9 pairs of new underpants, a souvenir plastic replica of the 1952 Wienermobile in the Henry Ford Museum, an advertisement for the long defunct boat to Bob-Lo. 3 weeks later I surreptitiously wheeled our bulging suitcases under the Nothing to Declare sign, expecting the bored German customs guy to pull me aside and demand a cut of my treasure. He didn’t even say welcome home.



A recent exchange reminded me of a collection I inherited from my grandfather. I returned from Florida after his death with a battered cardboard box overflowing with the grosgrain and woven linen watchbands he changed daily to match his seersucker jackets and madras plaid pants. He went to Princeton during the depression, his style was a combination of old school preppy and dimestore dandy. He made no apparent distinction other than color when choosing a sweater; some were 40 year-old threadbare cashmere, others polyester blends. There was a phone mounted to the wall in his bathroom, which he refered to as the office; it smelled like cigarettes and Old Spice. He was known to fart at the dinner table, dive into the pool with his clothes on or play tennis in golfshoes: always with utmost decorum.

Back in Chicago, where I was going to art school with a lot of people wearing a different kind of plaid out of a completely different context, I started wearing the watchbands as bracelets, or hooking them together to make belts. I wore bright pink or orange lipstick and embroidered cardigans buttoned up to the neck and spent a lot of time trying to get my hair to look like a model from the pages of the Sears catalog, ca. 1961. Of course I wasn’t the only one trying to look like I was from another decade, but at the time I guess I thought I was using an obscure code to engage in some highly private form of rebellion.

At the movies last night on my way into the bathroom there was a girl carefully prodding the elaborately pinned curls of her hairdoo back into place. Her lips were a perfect pouty heart on an alabaster face, and the clothes established her style somewhere between burlesque and rockabilly. Part of me thought, Such a rediculous effort, another part of me thought, Why don’t I wear fishnet stockings more often? I was wearing a gray sweater and jeans and the modern-yet-not-flashy accessories defined my style as middle-aged hip. A woman passed me on my way out, wearing the international uniform of the senior citizen: frumpy hat, tan coat over nondiscript beige clothes, wedge heel shoes.

I’m wondering if the progression from retro fringe to tastefully modern to nondiscript utilitarian is inevitable and, if so, if it’s something I should welcome or fear.



Give me your broken, your useless, your rusty refuse yearning to be saved… I lost a new cashmere sweater before Christmas, which was kind of annoying, but if the wire thingy with the two red plastic discs were to disappear it would be a real tragedy. Where did it come from and when did it mutate from junk to talisman? William Davies King answers my questions in his book Collections of Nothing, which intersperses a poignant chronicle of lonely childhood to midlife crisis with lists such as Here are all the varieties of tuna fish for which I have labels. Wise man. And I thought I was the only one collecting the patterns on the insides of envelopes.stuff



Whose keys are these anyway? Are they yours? Were you a Latchkey Kid? Did you hang them around your neck on a shoelace? Key to Success? Key to the City? Key to Your Heart? Etc., etc.

Family lore has it that my first full sentence was Where are the goddamn keys? Now they’re in every drawer like lint in my pockets. I’m guessing that one of them might open the padlock on the door to a windowless, nine square foot space at Your Personal Vault; a place my mother and I call The Family Estate. If you found the right key, you would find things that have been broken and then glued back together and are too ugly for anyone to want but can not be thrown away because of their official status as Family Heirloom. You might also discover a big black portfolio filled with drawings of fruit and baskets rendered painstakingly in colored pencil on bristol board. Or the electric pencil sharpener that was so essential to this neurotic activity. There are also some very overdue books from the Detroit Public Library, Main Branch. Also, clothes that no one wants to wear but thinks that someone else will one day want to wear. Which they won’t, unless they really like shoulder pads. Again.




Last week I went to my friendly local taxidermy shop to see if they had any more old bug boxes. Since she was six weeks old, I’ve been taking a portrait of my daughter every six months. At first all I had to do was shake a rattle and make reassuring noises. Then we moved on to outright bribery, lollipops being the payola of choice. Now, I’ve become a sort of meditational guide (there are still lollipops involved), talking her out of the giggles, exhorting her to concentrate, encouraging her to relax. The first box is almost full, hence the trip to one of my favorite places in Berlin.

The Berliner Präparationswerkstatt is a tiny store front crammed full with the prepared remains of a variety of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. They had a shark head sitting around once. Always lots of antlers. Sometimes they’re works in-progress, as in the half-sewn-up pig I see when I walk in. The smell of formaldehyde brings up bad memories of being pelted with frog eggs in an out of control 7th grade biology class.

They do have two nice boxes for me, dusty and full of broken bits of legs and wings. After a woman in a black leather jacket comes in (I’m here for the fox, she says), I get to talking with the owner. I ask him if he ever finds the whole thing with the animals disturbing. No, it’s science, it’s fascinating, he tells me. The only thing that really gives him the creeps is when people bring in their Fluffy or Buddy to have it stuffed and mounted for display in the living room. One of the nicknames I call my daughter is Bug.