Sometimes it’s just too much. Mass shootings. Hurricanes. Nazis. Nukes. Juvenile name-calling by bullies in D.C. Eroding civil rights. Immigrant-bashing. Wildfires in wine country.
And then Tom Petty dies, and the petunias freeze.
It takes a strong stomach to keep up with the news these days. For the past — oh, 11 and a half months or so — I’ve been waking up to cheerful birdsong, cats curled up on the edge of the bed … and a vague feeling of doom.
Friends tell me they share that anxious buzz at random moments … when they catch sight of CNN, for example, or hear Limbaugh blare from the open windows of the next car at a stoplight, or feel the vibes of a news alert on the cellphones in their pockets. What now? What next? What the ….
Here’s something we all can agree on: This is no way to live. Since there’s little we can do in the short run to counter the chaos itself, I think we all concur that it’s time for radical action aimed at the near-subliminal heeby jeebies it sustains.
What’s near at hand? Here at the Hanson household, that’s the TV clicker. We’ve long resolved to break our lifelong habit of mainlining the news throughout our waking hours. After our daily dose of Charlie Rose, Nora O’Donnell and Gayle King, we’re tuning all broadcast dials to music — contemporary by day, classical by night. Not only does it soothe; it’s a breeze to fall asleep after dinner. As for Facebook and the like, the solution is easy. More cat videos! There’s nothing like a crazy kitten scared by a cucumber to ease the old blood pressure.
But given the escalating cacophony of bad news in recent days, even feline antics haven’t been nearly enough. Last weekend, it was time to unleash the ultimate diversion — megatons of sheer distraction guaranteed to drive all worries up into the cheap seats.
It was time … to clean the bathroom cupboards!
Every home, I suspect, has a cubby where even the bravest heart seldom dares to go. Maybe yours is the kitchen junk drawer or that one cobwebby corner of the garage where the Prince of Clutter reigns.
At our house, it’s the pair of overstuffed cupboards beside the bathtub. I can’t remember exactly when the River Styx began to puddle behind those innocent oak doors, but they’ve come to conceal an infernal flood of miscellany that defies organization and, even, reason. Wise occupants tiptoe past, loathe to grab the handle and disturb the overstuffed mystery that lies within … mostly because a load of it is bound to come tumbling out in your face.
That’s it! I could suppress my existential angst about the headlines with a herculean burst of elbow grease! And that’s how Saturday began.
Now, I was fairly fond of the mirrored medicine cabinet that hung in my parents’ powder room. Though ours was no model of neatness, it was self-limiting — four shallow shelves of a foot or so, just big enough for the toothpaste, Visine, Vicks VapoRub, Q-Tips and bottles of nail polish.
Ours is more generous. The built-in cabinets are nearly a yardstick tall by two feet deep. They accommodate many layers of future fossils — the kind of historic trove that in a thousand years could thrill archeologists like uncovering King Tut’s tomb. Cellphones from the dawn of time. Accessories that fit an electric shaver that must have been left behind when we moved to Moorhead 33 years ago. A colorful bouquet of free toothbrushes, along with enough dental floss for a dynasty on the Nile. Charging cords for electronic gadgets long departed from this mortal coil. My late aunt’s beloved green-eyed cat brooch, missing a good third of its paste jewels. A bottle of Baby Tylenol bought for the young ’un who turns 33 this Friday.
I can’t say exactly how long it’s been since I last excavated those cabinets, but I do seem to remember running Windows 95 at the time. Russ pulled two wastebaskets into the bathroom, a big one for routine discards and a smaller to gather pharmaceuticals for the police to incinerate downtown. I crawled up on the kitchen stool, the better to reach far corners, and dug in.
You can tell a lot about a family by what they stuff in the back of their cupboards. It’s a better test than Ancestry.com for pinpointing the darker side of the owners’ genes. Me, I’m Norwegian; I was bred not to waste a thing. And I can prove it, there among the score of bottles of hair care products, each containing a dwindling inch or so in its bottom, plus the half-dozen push-up deodorant containers blessed with barely a scum of Secret deep inside.
Three more categories confounded me. We have gradually collected a bottle of every obscure nostrum that’s been touted by Dr. Oz — a single bottle of each, rarely finished, some barely begun, all dismissed to languish unmourned.
When Russ or I develop a painful owie, our first instinct is to run to the store for Band-Aids and salve. The result is an enviable assortment of big bandages, little bandages, round bandages, finger-shaped bandages and a few classics with Barbies and My Little Ponies. Did I mention elastic bandages? Those, too, along with flexible cold packs for freezing, a cache of Neosporin and rubs to soothe sore backs. I even found an ancient bottle of mercurochrome, possibly inherited from a grandmother who’s been gone since 1975. (She’s probably the source of the dicier spices pushed to the back of the junk drawer, too, but let’s not go into that.)
All that pales, though, next to our comprehensive collection of over-the-counter cold remedies. The contents themselves aren’t unique — standard Alka-Seltzer Plus and Ny/Day/ZZquil, along with throat lozenges, zinc, echinacea and miscellaneous heavily advertised elixirs and panaceas. What’s more unusual is that there seem to be no more than three tablets or a half-teaspoon in any of the boxes or bottles. Apparently our sure-fire cure for the common cold and flu is a restorative trip to Walgreen’s. It appears that we favor starting fresh for every infection … then pushing the left-overs to the back when our noses no longer drip. If there were a secondary market for odds and ends of over-the-counter meds, we could live off the proceeds of our low-rent pharmacy.
Those cursed cupboards consumed my whole Saturday afternoon. At last, detritus filled both wastebaskets to the brim. My sense of accomplishment was gargantuan. Not only that. The messed-up world outside hadn’t sent a blip through my mental radar even once.
Of course, the bad news came back, seeping in between the cracks by the time I went to bed. Yet a hint of hard-won well-being lingered.
Last night, I woke up again with that familiar frizz of anxiety nudging the edges of sleep. I got up to go to the bathroom. No, not for the plumbing. Instead, I opened cupboard doors and bathed my soul in the calm, well-ordered shelfscapes that lay within.
I wouldn’t call it peace, exactly. But at 4 a.m., it seemed to come close enough.