“We are simply creatures that know and make sense of the world and our places within it through things.” –Bernie Herman
To launch our current issue on Things, we asked a few of our friends to tell us about their prized objects–or the random stuff that just keeps hanging around. “We are simply creatures that know and make sense of the world and our places within it through things,” reminds Bernard L. Herman, the issue’s guest editor. The array of objects we collected and displayed in a pop-up museum was wide and weird, intimate and ordinary, familiar and new. As Herman says of the southern things we encounter each day, “Only when we haul them into the light do we begin to detect their potential for mystery and inspiration.” Here are some of our favorites.
It’s a round cardboard container, a small box from the 1930s that was used to hold a single glass eye—an extra eye, in case you needed to replace the glass eye you kept in your head, or maybe what you put your glass eye in when you weren’t using it. Maybe you took your eye out when you went to bed, and you put it in this box for safekeeping. For the last few years I’ve kept the box on my desk beside my computer, and in it is, of course, a glass eye, blue, a few small teeth that used to be in my son’s mouth before he lost them, and one of my teeth, too, a big molar that was removed at some point. Also in the box is a casing from the first bullet I ever shot out of a gun. When I’m writing I’ll come to a place in a story where I don’t know what comes next, and I’ll open the box and look at it, or sometimes I’ll just hold the box in my hand. I pretend to believe I’ve made something magic, and that it might help me understand what I’m supposed to know. Maybe it does.
My parents divorced when I was five years old. Shortly after they did, my mom started dating a guy named Lee, who was ten years younger than she was. I don’t remember that much about him, but I do remember that he was always kind to me throughout that very challenging time in my life. I also remember that he was always engaging in creative endeavors. He played music and made baskets; he also harvested a certain kind of mushroom and would etch images onto their fragile surfaces. I loved watching him do it—his movements were so precise and delicate. Sometime before he and my mom parted ways, he gave me the mushroom that’s here on display. In all of the subsequent years that I’ve lived, I’ve never seen an object quite like it. It remains as unique to me now as it was to me then. And more importantly, it remains a token of a friendship when I really needed one.
In 2007, Megafaun recorded their first album, “Bury the Square.” This was just a few months after playing their first show at King’s Barcade that, in an attempt to fill a thirty-minute opening slot, included improv comedy sketches between songs.
The self-released version of BTS (the band was later picked up by the label Table of the Elements, which officially released it) was one of Phil’s and my first collaborative projects. We bought scrap vinyl from an upholstery warehouse outside of Raleigh and had stamps made by Raleigh Rubber Stamp. In a rush, we made a round of ten for an upcoming show, only to realize that the ink we used wiped off in sweaty-handed exchanges at the merch table.
The ink we used wiped off in sweaty-handed exchanges at the merch table.
The next morning, Phil headed to Jerry’s Artorama where he got schooled on permanent ink stamping and came home with a pile of StazOn ink pads. We made about 150 of these in total. Some had curved tops that exposed the blaze orange CDs, some had fan-shaped belts that held tight when woven into the openings. We toyed with stitch types and blew a couple sewing machines up in the process of making them. Some were sent out the door on tour unstamped and the guys finished them on the road. These cases are fun relics from our early days as North Carolinians, the album itself serving as the soundtrack.
Bourbon seems to be my livelihood. I learn it so I can teach others about it. I sell it so I can earn money. I buy it so I can have access to what is out there. I drink it so my palate can stay astute to the broad subject of bourbon. I read about it to learn its history. I build relationships with bourbon makers, bourbon historians, and bourbon enthusiasts. I talk about it so often because it seems to be the only thing people ask me about. It seems as though the bourbon community I am in is my new circle of friends. Indeed, it seems my life revolves around this seven letter word. Is that good or bad? I do not know. It just is what it is. I am not a drunk. I do not drink bourbon around the house. I may have a beer or two when I am cooking on the grill, but that’s about it. When I think about bourbon being such a prominent thing in my daily life, it surprises me. I think of myself as trying to be the best father I can be. I think of myself as trying to be the best husband I can be. I think of myself as trying to be the best Christian I can be. I think of myself as trying to be the best friend I can be. This bourbon thing I am involved in is confusing to me because I do not really care that much about it. Oh, so it goes. I have to stop writing now because I just came across a bottle of Old Ezra 15 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey distilled in 1954 and bottled in 1969 that I have to taste.
Alice Gerrard is a legendary old time and bluegrass musician and currently the subject of my documentary film in progress, You Gave Me a Song. I’ve spent time documenting Alice, organizing her personal archive and uncovering a number of family treasures. The item here was found in a trunk at Alice’s house along with many other family mementos, photographs, and artifacts. The song was written by Alice’s father based on words from John Keats and was written for Alice when she was very young. It highlights one of the many ways music filled her life at an early age.
I have about 10 sweaters that I wear. This is not one of those sweaters. This is one of the sweaters I keep but never wear. For this project, I counted them. Christ, there are so many. I counted thirty-eight sweaters that I keep and literally never wear; they have only been on my body on the day I thought that buying the sweater was a good idea and on the few times I have considered wearing the sweater but still, eventually, decided not to wear the sweater. Or: during one of the times when I considered ridding myself of one or more of the sweaters but eventually couldn’t go through with it, because they had a nice pattern, or because I had a nice memory of the time I bought it, or because it was part of an outfit that I thought might look cool but that I was too shy to actually wear outside of my house. There are just . . . so many. F*ck. Maybe I will get rid of some of them now? No. Probably not.
Maybe I will get rid of some of them now? No. Probably not.
I keep all of my sweaters—the wearing kind and the purely aspirational—under my bed. I am running out of room because I keep buying sweaters and almost never get rid of any. Sometimes I think about the amount of money I have spent on sweaters over all of the years of my sweater-wearing life, and wish that I could trade all of the sweaters at once for a big pile of the money I spent on them. But unfortunately, that is not how things work. I’m stuck with them forever. Nobody wants my sweaters. They are part of a vast collection of useless objects that I will drag around from place to place, endlessly, probably until I die, or my house burns down.
After cycling through periods of accumulating items then purging, I’ve learned to recognize the dopamine hit that comes with the acquisition of stuff for what it is: a short-term high that fades, leaving me with a pile of junk to shovel into a closet.
The decades I spent as a retailer helped knock the sentimentality for stuff right out of me. I learned to view stuff as a raw material to be ground into money I can use to pay for cat food and that fancy mustard my wife likes.
An exception is this little cow, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I don’t know who gave it to me, or if it was a part of a set of plastic farm animals. All I know about it is that I’ve had it for my whole life.
I do know that when my wife told me she had taken one of our two remaining boxes of doodads to the thrift shop and was getting ready to take the other one, I pawed frantically through the box, choking back vile curses, furious at the thought that the cow may have been given away. When I located it at the bottom of the box, my relief was matched only by my embarrassment at the intensity of the emotion I’d just exhibited. I grinned sheepishly at my wife, who said, “It’s okay. You love it. You can keep it.”