Random Ephemera

Swedish Death Cleaning: Don Quixote and Those Windmills

Realism and practicality were not in Don Quixote's wheelhouse.
Realism and practicality were not in Don Quixote's wheelhouse. Photo by Nivaagaards Malerisamling/public domain
We've all been horrified by those hoarding shows on television where a hazmat-suited army carries pile after pile of accumulated "stuff" out to a construction dumpster while the distressed homeowner argues valiantly about the merit of each object.

That's the worst kind of hoarding, a compulsion that invites rodents and other pests, slowly closes off room after room, and eventually creates enough of a fire hazard where it becomes a matter for protective services, the sheriff's office, the health department or the humane society.

But what about dream hoarding? Isn't it OK for a seamstress to have plastic bins full of fabric scraps, or a handyman to have a dozen circular saws picked up for a song at the local pawn shop? What about that curated collection of vinyl that numbers in the thousands or the limited edition comics in their acid-free sleeves?

Dream hoarding is fine as long as you continue to enjoy these objects on a regular basis, or plan to tackle that next project, or have a market for your craftwork. But the plan goes off the rails when these objects are being saved solely because of their perceived value.

Our father was a big inventor. His intellect was a gift, netting him a scholarship to Yale, but also a curse in that his mind could never be stilled. He was always retrofitting everyday objects to make them better, with no fewer than two trips to the hardware store, and his big idea was to create a tunneled pillow that would keep an arm from going numb during sleep.

Soon our world was full of plastic extruders, injection molds, foam thicknesses and ear-accommodating apertures. My poor brother drilled hundreds of holes through plastic as prototypes were developed and improved upon. The patent alone cost $7,500 and soon Daddy, aka Don Quixote, had maxed out all his credit cards and was $30,000 in debt.

His first brush with death was on an airplane still on the tarmac. He had a heart attack and, thanks to first responders on board, his life was saved. In the hospital before going into surgery, he turned to the eldest of my three brothers and asked him to promise he would see the invention through. The rest of us sneaked sideways glances at each other since we'd obviously dodged a bullet.

The rest of us sneaked sideways glances at each other since we'd obviously dodged a bullet.

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Don Quixote died for real a dozen years later, never having found a market for his invention, though not without trying. Ever the visionary, there was the thousand mile trek to a sleep convention in Chicago, failed pitches to the military, and "thumbs down" reviews from our friends brave enough to give the pillow a try.

As Daddy's financier and supporter, I was anxious to clear out his condo and get it on the market. But how to deal with those mountains of foam, cases of packing tape, custom pillowcases in every color (including camo, just in case the army said yes), and plastic forms? It felt wrong to take Don Quixote's dream and just throw it in the dumpster.

I found salvation through the Salvation Army. I held back three of his pillows for sentimental value and donated the rest of it, lock, stock and barrel, for the organization's daily auctions. I like to think that some artist bought the stuff and created some cool sculpture, and that just might have been its destiny. Most importantly, it was a solution that I could live with.

So I think the Swedes are onto something with their cultural concept of döstädning, or Swedish death cleaning. When there are more years behind you than ahead, take the time to declutter and clean out those closets, eliminate duplicates and embrace minimalism so that it doesn't fall to your heirs, children or friends. If you've got a comic book collection, then find a way to sell it; after all you're the best person to recognize a good offer and you know where the buyers are.

Don Quixote was just my first battle with those windmills. With two more parents and their own dream hoarding, there are more tales to tell. Turn in next week for more Swedish death cleaning.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney