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  The Modern Form

De-Sentimentalization (1)

Here I want to talk about de-sentimentalization of single objects with moderate sentimental value. Multiple objects are covered in De-Sentimentalization (2).

The process of de-sentimentalization is something that evolved over the course of several years from the process of journaling. I'll tell you all about the modern form in just a minute, but first I'd like to take a look at how it evolved.

When I first started keeping a journal, it was pretty much what you'd expect. I used spiral notebooks for everything back then, so I took one of them and just wrote down whatever I felt like writing down—sometimes a sentence fragment or two, sometimes a whole paragraph, sometimes nothing at all for days at a time. The one thing you might not expect is that once in a while I'd attach things to it—first a page I'd written when I didn't have the journal handy, later a newspaper clipping, a note from a girl, and other things like that. In other words, I used it as a scrapbook as well as a journal. That was a mutation, but it seems like a completely natural one to me.

I'm not sure what happened next. The main evidence I have is a notebook from a few years later that starts with some dated lists of things I was throwing away. Apparently I was home for the holidays, already thinking about cleaning my room, and somehow I knew that if I made those lists, it would be easier for me to throw the things away. A strange idea, but a true one, at least for me! How did I get the idea? Well, maybe I'd read it somewhere, or heard it from someone, or maybe I'd happened to discover it when I was making a list for some other reason. (I did that a lot back then.) But, my best guess is, some day previously I'd had some ephemeral object that had qualities that made me want to save it in my journal but that lacked the necessary quality of flatness, and I'd settled for mentioning it, and had seen that that was enough.

From there, it was all downhill. That notebook, which I came to call a senti-journal, started out with just some dated lists but then rapidly and naturally came to include all the other elements of modern de-sentimentalization.

  1. The more I wrote, the more I understood that I needed a fairly high level of detail to capture the essence of an object, and consequently the list entries got longer and longer. Well, at least on average they did. Sometimes an object would have little sentimental value, and it'd be enough to write a short note. And, sometimes an object would only have sentimental value because it reminded me of something, some person or place or time, and if I could figure out what that thing was, I didn't really need to say anything more about the object. But, sometimes an object would have sentimental value just because it was old and familiar, not because of any particular association, and in those cases the only way to capture the essence was to describe the object in detail.
  2. Actually, it wasn't just the level of detail that changed, it was also the kind. At first I tended to just write down what I already knew about the object—a reasonable approach, since sentimental value is all in the mind—but later I developed the habit of stopping and really looking at the object, as if seeing it for the first time. As a result, I learned some new things about some old familiar objects, and of course I also had more to write down.
  3. In particular, I discovered that I liked to count things. If I tell you I had some tennis-ball-can lids that I used as frisbees, that gives you a fair amount of information, but if I tell you I had 15 tennis-ball-can lids that I used as frisbees, well, I think the exact number really adds something. That's a real example, by the way—the first time I counted something for the senti-journal. I didn't bother to write it down, but I'm pretty sure the can lids were all that one particular shade of yellow.
  4. I also discovered that I liked to measure things. Even more than counting, measuring really adds something to a description. Measurements tell you how an object exists (or existed, or is intended to exist) in the physical world, how much space it occupies, how it fits in your hands if you pick it up. If I tell you I once made a box with sliding panels out of laminated cardboard from patterned Kleenex boxes, that's pretty specific, but it still leaves you with nothing more than a sizeless blob when you try to imagine the box sitting in front of you. If I tell you the box was small, that doesn't help much. But, as soon as I tell you that it was 7/8 by 1 5/8 by 2 3/8 inches, it's a well-defined object, even more well-defined if you care to look at a ruler.
  5. However, there are some things that are almost impossible to capture by describing and measuring. If an object is memorable because of some particular shape it has, some form, some design, then maybe there just aren't any words that can produce the same associations. Think of a wheat penny. Of course there are words for that, I just wrote them, and nowadays the words lead to images online, but what if you had to describe one from scratch? In any case, it didn't take long for me to encounter the problem and stumble onto a solution: drawing sketches. I've always liked to draw, so that was an easy and natural step to take. After that, given an object, I'd still usually start out trying to describe it, but if I got stuck, I'd give up and draw a sketch. Or, sometimes I'd mix the two, and only draw the important part or aspect of the object. (And, surprisingly often, the important part would be some distinctive font or layout; even now I don't fully appreciate the power of good graphic design.)
  6. For flat objects the problem had an alternate solution. I'd already been attaching things to my journal, so it wasn't much of a leap to do the same with the senti-journal. At first I only used Scotch tape, I guess to keep the journal as flat as possible, but later I came to prefer staples for items that were large or two-sided. Staples might seem like the only choice for two-sided items, but actually tape works too—just tape along one edge and the tape will act like a hinge. It just doesn't seem very sturdy. (For normal items I'd either tape all four corners, diagonally or not, or tape along two edges, or staple in the center of an edge, in a corner, or at the two ends of a single edge. If I had several things I wanted to attach, I might also staple them all together, or tape them efficiently in a kind of mosaic pattern. Fascinating, isn't it?)
  7. It should have been obvious, but for some reason it took me a long time to realize that I didn't have to treat objects as atomic wholes, and instead could cut out and attach just the important part(s), or just a representative part. That's not always the right approach, but it's definitely a good option to have around—I find I can often capture 90% of the sentimental value with just 10% of the object. Because of the sentimental value, it can sometimes be difficult to make the first cut, but once the first one is made, the rest are easier because the object is already damaged. It's also a lot easier to throw away the leftovers than it would have been to throw away the original object.
  8. Unfortunately, there are also some things that are not only hard to describe but also hard to draw, and not flat. It took quite a while for me to stumble onto a solution to that problem, but eventually I did: taking pictures. Given the current state of technology, you're probably imagining a digital camera, but no, I started doing this before there were any, and in fact I didn't even get one until a few months ago (but that's another story). No, I just took pictures with my little 35 mm Ricoh (itself an object of considerable sentimental value) and got them made into prints. Since prints are flat, you might imagine that I attached them to the journal, but that's not right either. The sentimental pictures were usually mixed in with other normal pictures, so when I had to decide where to keep them, it was far more compelling to classify them as part of the picture archive than as part of the senti-journal. (It did occur to me that I could separate the functions by making duplicates, but even I was never quite enthusiastic enough to do that.)
  9. The form of the journal changed a little over the years, too. I used spiral notebooks for a long time, but eventually I switched to loose-leaf paper and three-ring binders. The main benefit was that when necessary it was easier to attach complete 8½ × 11 pages. With notebooks I'd had to fold the pages in half and staple them in (sometimes with an off-center fold), but with binders I could just punch three holes in the pages and include them. Strangely, that benefit doesn't seem to have been the cause of the change. I'd switched to loose-leaf (with report covers) for my regular journal much earlier; my best guess is that I switched for the senti-journal just to be consistent.
  10. Later I made one more little improvement. I'm not sure, but I think it was my college papers that provoked it. I'd stored them all in brown paper grocery bags up on the top shelf of my closet, and there were a lot of them—certainly one bag for each year, maybe two for some. (See also The Story of My Room.) There were so many papers that even before I started going through them it was clear that even after I'd reduced the number by describing, cutting out parts, and simply throwing away, there were still going to be a lot of complete pages left. However, the papers were also already organized and stored in file folders (inside the grocery bags), so even for me it would have been too absurd to take them out of their perfectly good folders, spend time punching holes in them, and then load them all into relatively large and inconvenient binders. So, instead, I did the obvious and natural thing and gathered whatever pages I wanted to save into a single folder (actually one per semester). At first I interleaved the senti-journal pages with the saved pages, but later I kept the two separate, with the senti-journal pages at the front of the folder.

And there you have it … that's how the process of de-sentimentalization evolved! Of course, the steps weren't really that nice and discrete, they blurred and overlapped and maybe even happened in a slightly different order, but that's the best approximation to reality that I have.



  See Also

  Classification of Functions
  De-Sentimentalization (2)
  How I Cleaned My Room
  Modern Form, The
  Other Approaches

o May (2007)
  December (2007)
  February (2010)
@ August (2010)