The Packrat Race
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Jul 2010)

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            I might need that one day.

            I’m keeping it for reference.

            It still fits. It’s not torn. Why throw it out?

            Maybe it was all the Little House on the Prairie I watched as a child. Ma and Pa would never have let Laura get away with discarding perfectly useful items. As I type this, I’m wearing my high school swim team sweatpants, which I’ve converted into shorts. Were it autumn, I’d be wearing my still-full-length Penn Athletics sweats, which date back to my freshman year of college. Their accompanying practice shorts disintegrated a few years ago, having long since impressed me with their longevity. I let them go and wished them godspeed.

            My dresser bursting with T-shirts is a testament to my approach to stuff. Taking into account the free giveaways (PRAISE 103.9!), paid events (Salsafest! Shotokan Karate Master Camp!), vacations (Miami! Québec! Antarctica!), demonstrations of school spirit (Go Bison! Fight on, Quakers!), and my relatively stagnant size, I have amassed quite the collection.

            Among my other relics is a 7th grade vocabulary assignment in the form of an original story. Though the following excerpt contains none of the required vocab, it is still my favorite of any line I have ever written. Ahem. “His barf was a similar shade; it hit the floor with the force of a skillfully shot arrow.” For context, I was eleven. 

            Some might mock me for having kept a folder from High School Newspaper Camp, but our guest speaker that year was Tom Batiuk, creator of Funky Winkerbean. Among the sample layouts and articles I’d stored in that folder was a canary yellow sheet of half-sized notebook paper I’d stood in line to receive from the artist himself. I am the proud owner of a smiling, Sharpie-drawn Winkerbean alongside Tom’s signature and, in comic-strip-esque lettering, “TO NICOLE, STAY FUNKY.” Cool, no?

            I still have  numerous textbooks, notes and folders from throughout my undergraduate years. Have I cracked them since graduation? A few times. Is that enough to warrant keeping them? Ah. That is the question, time and again.

            Packrat-hood may appear lazy on the surface but, on the contrary, maintaining this lifestyle is no easy feat. One must constantly reassess what to keep/toss/recycle/donate. One must make spectacular, creative use of vertical space and shelving. One must move ridiculous numbers of boxes from place to place on moving day, enduring storage bin-shaped bruises, muscle aches, dust-irritated eyes, and friends’ commentary ranging from outright shock (“Holy crap, do you have a lot of STUFF!”) to ridicule (“MAN, Nicole. I can’t believe you have so much STUFF!”) to disgruntled dismay (“WHYYYYY do you have so much STUUUUUUFF?!”).

            And yet, bruises and mockery be damned, little else matters when I hold in my hands That One Thing. Whatever it is, when I find it at the right time, I am immeasurably glad that I never threw it away.

May 23, 2010

Nicole Maloy just found her 10th grade Hon. English II notebook, and the JTK-provided copy of his college recommendation letter for her. Say what you want about packrats, but sometimes you're jealous.

            In this very column I once gave a shoutout to my former high school teacher James Todd King (AKA “JTK”), with whom I had reconnected on Facebook. For me and countless others, he is that teacher. A force. A kindred spirit. A mentor. Once we all graduated into adulthood and could also call him a friend, he tried to get us to call him “Todd.” I could live with referring to him as something other than “Mr. King,” but “Todd?” Nope. Didn’t fit. I experimented with various alternatives in our correspondence over the years, settling on “JTK” like many had before me, until January 2008 when I found him on Facebook. One of my first messages ended with, “PS I like how the first two letters of each of your names together spell out something that could be Japanese.” His reply: “Ah-so, grasshopper: I am jatoki-san in my dojo....” And thus was born the name I used with great affection from that day forward.

           I use it still, though he passed away this May.

           (silence)

           About a week after his passing, as I scoured through his old messages and posts, aching to find as many traces as possible to re-experience, it crossed my mind that I, being me, probably still had the original notebook from my class with him somewhere among my possessions. And so I did.

            Over a time spanning more than half of my life, everything this man taught me about passionate dedication to oneself, one’s talents, and one’s friends began in that classroom with his own dedication to the written word, and to us, his students. And there it all is, right there, in that notebook that has oh, so quietly traveled with me from place to place, from year to year. Each time I  rediscovered it, I decided anew to keep it, and stashed it away again.

           A few things are missing, such as – impossibly – the paper he handed back with the highest grade I ever received from him. Still, with syllabus, essays, class notes and final exam review sheets intact, what option do I have but to review the entire course in his honor? How can I not reread and reanalyze the pieces and themes he valued enough to teach? He might feel a begrudging flattery in response to this idea, but would quickly get past that and start quizzing me. In short, I believe he would approve.

           To make sure, I may just ask him. He’s waiting for me amid the loose leaf paper, the handouts, and the comments in red, blue or black ink. Anytime I need to hear his voice, I know exactly where to go. And I am deeply grateful that I can.

            I might need that one day.

            And so I did.

            Rest in peace, Jatoki-San.

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