Friday, April 8, 2005
Spring cleaning 101
The calendar says it is time for the annual rite of spring cleaning. I imagine the proper Yankee housewife cleaning deep under the beds, moving the furniture, methodically opening each closet and drawer to review the contents, restore order, and clear out any resident spiders. I imagine that a good spring cleaning rejuvenates a household, allowing the messy process of living to continue in the same spaces for another year.
But that's not how I grew up. In my family the winter grime might get washed off the windows, but the closets and drawers would remain untouched. It was our religion that anything that could be useful "someday" should not be thrown out — empty medicine vials, the blouse with the frayed cuffs that could still be worn under a sweater, jelly jars that had lost their covers. There was a bit of clutter in the corners, but since my frugal mother did not spend good money freely, our possessions did not engulf us.
Unfortunately, I inherited a mutated frugal gene, and after two decades of "frugal" house management, more than 75% of my storage space is filled with stuff that is no longer used or wanted but is too good to chuck. Justifiably or not, I usually replace an item before the old one reaches the end of its useful life. A new set of water glasses takes residence in my kitchen, and the older set goes into the basement, in case 40 thirsty people drop in simultaneously some day. The bulky, scratchy sweater that has not been worn for eight years is carefully stored in the back of the closet because it is such good wool.
Being frugal is a virtue, but hoarding stuff that will never be used is an obsession. Admitting the problem, I have read scores of self-help articles and books that counsel addicts to discard what you have not used or worn for a year. Clean out that stuff, they say, and you will think more clearly and lead a happier life. Still, I put it away, not throw it away.
Fortunately, there is salvation for frugal Fannie: the Goodwill truck in Concord, Girl Scout drives for used winter coats, Big Brother/Big Sister Foundation who will pick up usable clothing and household items from your doorstep. And for everything else there is the famous Carlisle swap shed. Next week, I promise, I will start making weekly trips to the swap shed. Recycling is much easier than disposal.
And better still, maybe I need to think twice before buying. How long will I use that Martha Stewart-approved vase? Where will I store it? And how will I part with it? After that mental exercise it may be easier not to buy. That would be really frugal.
In his recent bestseller, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the process whereby seemingly innocuous things can make a previously obscure idea, product or social behavior suddenly spread like an epidemic, dramatically altering the culture. The transformative moment when something little suddenly becomes big — and suddenly makes a big difference to a lot of people — is called the Tipping Point.
I've been thinking about how the Tipping Point may pertain to Carlisle and us Carlisleans. Some are fearful — and others hopeful — that we are at a Tipping Point now. Depending on how you look at it, the proposed 40B development on Concord Street is so transformative that either, by setting a precedent for a rapid succession of more of the same, it will ruin Carlisle, or by showing us what can happen, enough people will finally understand — and will finally believe the warnings we've been hearing for years that we must act now or the character of Carlisle will be irreparably harmed. Still others may feel that the cows are already gone, through the long-since destroyed barn door of subdivisions like the one in which I live.
The leaders of the Carlisle school community are pondering another potential Tipping Point. They worry that the next few years of development may raise the school population beyond the capacity of the existing school buildings to the point that tips us to the major expense of a new campus. They also wonder if what now appears to be an impending Tipping Point may actually be one of those population blips that leads towns to build new schools that a few years later leave them explaining expensive excess capacity when the school-age population returns to its pre-blip level.
The Tipping Point in land values may have been the $200,000 price tag for a building lot reached in the mid- to late-nineties after a decade of relatively steady growth. Since then prices have soared; at $500,000 and up, we look wistfully back at what we turned down at St. Irene Church. And it is hard to imagine how anyone could again propose a major municipal land purchase at today's market rate.
Gladwell writes about broad social impacts, but I think we can apply the Tipping Point to individuals. Many in town are wondering what will be the last straw that sends them packing for greener (and less expensive) pastures. For some that time has come and they are already gone. They may always feel like Carlisleans at heart, but their homes are now somewhere in Vermont.
Does each of us have a Tipping Point? For you, will it be when the taxes are just too much to pay, or when they no longer seem worth it for a decreasingly idyllic landscape? Or will it be when a 40B goes in right next door? Or when you realize the land under your modest home is worth so much you'd feel foolish not to cash out? Or when the traffic in Carlisle center elicits comparisons to Manhattan gridlock? Will these individual decisions bring us to a Tipping Point for Carlisle as a whole? When it's too much to bear and we've all left town, what will be left behind?
Perhaps we'll make just enough compromises, individually and collectively, that the balance won't tip us out. I'd like to think this is not a cynical conclusion that some of the folks who were sure that Tall Pines would ruin Carlisle are indeed content as they bring their children to this neighborhood to trick-or-treat or when they come here with a friend for a brisk, safe, and quiet morning walk.
© 2005 The