Dismantling a life that’s fading in memory

Yesterday I went upstairs to our bedroom to do a task I’d neglected to do for years. Every time I went to get a pair of socks they’d be staring at me: Piles of paper, mostly receipts, with some notes, business cards, and post-its. Finally, as part of our emptying out the house we’ve lived in since 1994, I was tackling the Scary Sock Drawer. And in the process, I filled in some blanks in my memory that lasted for years. (For those of you just catching up, we’re doing a reverse immigration thing and moving to Italy soon,)

I’ll admit that I’ve got a weird memory. I’m good at images, and I remember strange facts, maps, pieces of music. And most of it is pretty recent stuff, unless it’s a childhood memory. I can replay images I saw as a baby—in one vignette, I was in my playpen in the Brooklyn apartment that was my first home. I was looking toward the window and a shaft of sunlight that came in through the blinds, illuminating the dust particles in the air. I can see, even now, how I blew on those particles to watch them dance, and then giggled at how clever I was. (This probably explains a lot about my later habits.)

There are huge gaps, though. I tend to remember the last year or so, maybe because I’ve taken more than 30,000 photos on my phones and various digital cameras But for awhile my recollections had a huge void in the 1990s, probably because I was too busy working, trying to get rid of evil bosses, and playing with the kids while keeping my marriage with The Spartan Woman going. It’s only when I started to digitize our hard-copy photo collection that I was able to fill in some details

But why did I save so many receipts from Rainbow Cleaners? And receipts for non-expense account meals? And boarding passes?

We’re not talking about recent garbage. The meals dated from 2013-14. Oh look, the Oyster Bar from 10 years ago. Now I remember, it was with Josephine, my ex-colleague. She and I had a great lunch—I think I was off that day—and we spent way too much on a plate of raw oysters on the half shell and some ice cold flinty white wine. Josephine was in from living in Barcelona, after she’d been cashiered along with a bunch of my former co-workers, and had lately discovered the joys of day drinking. She probably followed that with a nap when she was in Barcelona, but New York doesn’t encourage such things.

What amazed me was how many times I was taken to the cleaners. Ok, I walked, it’s only two blocks away. I kept coming across yellow receipts from Rainbow Cleaners, and I didn’t realize how much dry cleaning we had. Why so many receipts? Who needed them? The guy who owns Rainbow is young and tech-savvy, typical of his Korean-American cohort, so naturally he had both an up to date client database on his laptop and a keen memory. I’d walk in and he’d already located my suit or jacket, so I learned that I never had to give him a receipt.

Not that I wore suits that often in my former life. It’s now more than six years since I left one of the most boring newsrooms on earth (it wasn’t always boring, but once the company brass took over and hired consultants…), and even then I rarely had to dress up. I confess that every now and then I’d don a suit and take a long lunch break uptown just to make it look like I was leaving. Rummaging through the sock drawer, I found receipts for the black suits that I favored, and even tuxedo rental receipts for the one time a year where I had to get on stage and present an award to some corporate lawyer type. I hated those award nights, had bigly stage fright having to speak to 500 Masters and Mistresses of the Universe, plus the food mostly sucked. (One shining exception: the Parmigiano Reggiano chunks sitting in those big cheese wheels at Cipriani.)

I found at least two things in there that are useful: a €5 note, a €20 note, and two Greenmarket tokens worth $10. I plan to celebrate the last one by pairing them with some others we’ve found to get a couple of dozen oysters from the fisherman guy.

THIS WHOLE PROCESS IS both tedious and fascinating. And a little sobering. For one thing, in cleaning out the media wall in the living room, we’ve had to decide what to do with a couple of decades of technology. We stashed everything away, usually in a panicked last minute cleanup if someone was coming over for dinner. So….let’s see: A white Macbook; two MacBook/PowerBook chargers; various USB cables for iPhones long gone (I got my first one in 2008); albums on tape cassettes; empty cassette boxes; blank CDs; blank DVDs; SCSI cables (why there and not in the office-graveyard?); photographic slide film (!); a huge flash attachment for a camera that used said slide film, probably last used in the mid-1990s. And so on.

We’re almost done with the living room, bar the furniture and the electronics in use or too big to deal with right now. Our son-in-law looks wantingly at the decent Advent speakers I bought years ago when I used something called a “stereo system” to play CDs and vinyl “records.” He can have them. I’m not sure about the garden variety DVD player, last used…? I can’t remember. Or the receiver. Does anyone still use those?

Next up: the dining room. We don’t have much in the way of family china and silver. But we do want to pack up some Italian pottery and take it back home. We also have a buffet-top full of bottles of liquor that we never drink. Maybe we should have a party?

Call me a convert

I was not about to go near The Spartan Woman. She was just a few meters away cursing at the food processor and Martha Stewart last week. It’s not that she had beef with Martha—quite the contrary. It’s just that she was trying to bake one of Martha’s recipes, a lime tart, and had to convert such quantities as “one stick of butter” or “half a cup of …” into the metric measurements we use in Europe. [TSW hastens to tell me that it’s not just the system of measurement but how recipes in the U.S. are written, often giving less accurate volumetric quantities rather than the weights professional chefs and Europeople use.]

 Photo: Cmh at the English-language Wikipedia

She wasn’t alone. Expat message boards are full of posts with people having trouble either converting measurements or finding ingredients that may be common in the United States—vanilla extract, for example—but hard to find in Italy. And measurements? Fuhgetaboutit.

As someone with a foot on both continents, I think about these differences a lot. And language, though it’s often a big barrier for newbies in a new country, isn’t the only one. I’m talking about measurements, more specifically, the metric system. The difference between the American version of Imperial measurements and the metric system might be harder to get over. Think about it: An American’s whole frame of reference to the world around us involves measurement of some kind. Two miles, 30 feet, 5,000 feet altitude, 45 degrees, 14 inches, a pint.

The United States is almost alone in the world in clinging to this obsolete and strange system. The other countries? Those progressive nations of Liberia and Myanmar. I call the system strange because, well, it is. Think about it: 5,280 feet equals a mile.Thirty-six inches, a yard; 12 inches, a foot. The only halfway sane one is the ton—at least 2,000 pounds is an easy number to remember.

Talk about American exceptionalism.

Seriously, though, one of the biggest barriers to improving life in the United States is the general refusal to learn much from the rest of the world in a conscious way. There’s almost always the assumption that Americans do it better, have it better, know more. And the U.S. way of measuring and perceiving the world is almost unique, and makes Americans nervous when they venture abroad. Or even over the borders to Mexico and Canada. I’m sorry, but Liberia isn’t exactly leading the way, and Myanmar is currectly ruled by a vicious and genocidal military dictatorship. Not great company to keep.

Inertia to change certainly plays a part. And so does math. When I was a kid in the 1960s, the U.S. made baby steps toward metrification. But instead of instilling in schoolchildren the system from scratch, teachers and texts taught equivalents. One pound equals 454 grams; to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit degrees, follow the formula temp Celsius X 1.8+32′ degrees=temp F. Lunacy, Why bother?

Ontario helps U.S. drivers with this sign as they cross the border. (It’s a little off: 100 kph is actually 62.5 mph.)

Maybe this sounds trivial, but think about it. You’re on your first trip abroad, to, say, Paris. You look at the TV weather channel in your hotel room, trying to figure out how to dress, and you see that it’s 12 degrees outside. What’s better? Plugging in the variables? Or knowing that 12 degrees is a chilly spring or autumn day? Sure, now you just look at your phone, but doing so isn’t teaching you anything, or making your more comfortable with how the rest of the world perceives temperatures.

BUT CLINGING TO THE OLD SYSTEM ISN’T just about inertia. Radical right wingers have made it one of their causes. Check out this video by that great intellectual Tucker Carlson. Back in 2019 he interviewed New Criterion editor James Panero about “the tyranny of the metric system.” I love how Panero calls U.S. measurements natural, metric ones abstract—and then dismisses the fact that we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, and how the metric system is based on….well, 10.

Despite this know-nothing astroturf nonsense, and popular fears, American industry knows better. Have you looked at a bottle of wine or soda recently? You’ll see 750 ml, 1 liter. Buy a car, or even a big American SUV lately? Your engine is 2.0 liters, 3.5 liters, etc. The dependably capitalist economic system has already made the change and I’ll bet Carson and Panero would call our leaders of industry woke socialists.

Getting with the program may be hard at first, but it’s not impossible. Canada switched from Imperial measurements to the metric system on April 1, 1975, and within a generation Canadian young people are fully immersed in metrics. A friend of mine from Toronto says she’s confused when she sees Fahrenheit degrees, and while she lived in the U.S. for a few years, she finds feet, yards, and miles to be impossibly strange.

So what do you do to get in synch with the rest of the world? I’m not saying that you should live in a metric bubble when everyone around you is in a real-life Flintstones episode. Just get acquainted with what everyone else uses, so that if you venture past the U.S. borders you won’t be lost. Start simply. Change the settings on your phone to metric measurements. You’ll get used to a kilometer and the Celsius scale. Or just remember that a kilometer is a little more than half a mile, give or take. And Celsius is easy, especially for landmarks of 0 degrees and above. Zero is freezing; 10 is a cool spring day; 20 is room temperature; 30 is a nice but not sweltering day at the beach. And 37 is body temperature—and a sweltering day at the beach.

Public domain via Wikicommons

The system of measurement isn’t the only thing keeping Americans in a bubble. In the rest of the world when it comes to politics, red means left wing, blue is conservative/right wing. But that’s another post. Be brave, America! You have nothing to lose but your disorientation. And you’ll know that when your phone tells you that it’s going to be 31 degrees this afternoon, it’s a great day to head out to that beach.