A Healthy Obsession

I have a bias and it’s this: everyone bloody well ought to have a collection. In as materialistic a society as we live in? This should rise to the level of legal requirement. Grow up in Israel? You serve in the military. Grow up in America? You have a collection. I’ll vote for the first candidate who adopts that plank.

(I also think if you grow up in America you should be obligated at some point to wait tables, but one rant at a time).

Seriously, collections are the kind of healthy obsession that not only give you something curious and fun in which to invest your time (a small battle won, in other words, of activity over the rampant passivity the many screens in our lives have wrought), but make you a more interesting person for it, y’ask me.

The weirder or more unexpected the collection, for that matter, the better. Who hasn’t run into someone who collected the most unlikely thing and not been tickled by it? Back scratchers, celebrity hair locks, McDonald’s memorabilia, lunch boxes, banana stickers—who cares what it is? Because whatever it is, it grabbed YOUR attention at some point, compelled your imagination for some reason, and now you’ve coopted the thing into part of your person. That’s enough for me—now, tell me all about it.

At least I think I want to hear all about it. I had an ex-wife once (oh, the cheeky joy to be able to say that now with a laugh!) and her grandparents collected antique trivets. I know: what the hell’s a trivet? Trivets are these ornate metal things that used to serve as hot pads in the old days. This very sweet couple from some quiet burg in Ohio had these little bastards festooned all over their kitchen and living room. At first it was fun to see that they had them. When they started to explain to me what was unique about each one, my thoughts soon turned in supplication to the gods that an emergency root canal would befall me.

And heaven knows, a person’s collection can become oppressive, even painfully, to those around them. The guy that builds an extension to house his collection of Pittsburgh Steeler beer cans, hats, and Terrible Towels, or the woman who begins to breed Dobermans after her kids have left for college, packs the house with every Doberman related piece of kitsch she can find (can you say, Doberman light switch covers?) then ends up joining the Doberman Breeders Society and works her way up to the Presidency, forgetting along the way that she—hmm, what is it, what am I forgetting? Oh, that’s right: I’m still married and have a husband! Hell, my father, for that matter (my biological father, that is, and not Dad). He collected antique miniature oil lamps, became one of the nation’s largest collectors, oh la-ti-da. He’d engineer these summer “adventures” for my siblings and I in which we’d “explore New England and America’s illustrious history”…when in fact it was all about combing through every last antique shop and flea market across the land in search of those lamps. Mark and I still regret not having played catch in his house with our lacrosse sticks and unleashing a few strategically wayward passes.

I’ve arrived myself in life at two collections, though I possess a pretty cool third as well (I just don’t cultivate the thing anymore nor market its existence in my life in any way).

The third thing—my “inert” collection, if you will—is of old Mad Magazines. Right: who didn’t love Mad Magazine at some point in time if you’re an American guy? My collection began when I saw a teacher in our elementary school reading a Mad Magazine, which I commented on. He asked if I wanted some old issues, to which I of course said yes, and damned if he didn’t bring me in a box of REALLY old issues, reaching back into the early 60s, even. Presto! A collection! I didn’t exactly go crazy in pursuit of every last issue, though over the years I have tracked down and collected all of the issues whose covers I dug, or loved whatever it was they spoofed in that issue (I prize to no end my issue that spoofed the Planet of the Apes series, as in, of course). And yes, at one point, being flush with some cash, I did track down and purchase the very first five issues of the thing, so I do possess an original Mad Magazine Issue No. 1. I saw that sucker once in the National Archives, I’ll have you to know, so…BACK OFF! To round out that this collection did achieve obsessional status, I have framed in my office at school, side by side, two issues of Mad: one, issue No. 1, and next to that, the July 1964 issue (in a nod to Independence Day, the cover is a two panel treatment of Alfred E. lighting the fuse of a huge firework, then in the second panel it’s actually him rocketing upwards).

My two real collections you’ll find after you roam our house for a bit. The first is in the den, being my collection of signed first edition books from my favorite authors. Roth, Lethem, Franzen, Chabon, Russo, Hurakami, Ishiguro, Jim Harrison, Tom Robbins—I have most of these writers’ books at this point in time. Since this kind of collection can get real expensive real fast, I have representative books from lots of other authors too—Vonnegut, Updike, Kesey, Penn Warren. I have a number of rock autobiographies—Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Pete Townshend, Greg Allmond, Carlos Santana, John Fogarty. I have a few cool signed books by some of my favorite illustrators—Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe (of The Wall fame). Finally there are scads of various books that I just loved so I scored them There’s just something about holding in your hand a great piece of writing that was once held and inscribed by the author him- or herself. I love the sense of connection that comes of that.

My second real collection is of original San Francisco rock concert posters from the heyday of these things, about 1966 to 1971. I absolutely adore this collection, being about live music, my passion, and being about the San Francisco scene, the ghost of which I chase around all of the time. And they’re great looking, and fascinating in composition, and the bands you discover that played together once upon a time—the Miles Davis Quintet on the same bill as the Grateful Dead, or Ike & Tina Turner with the opener of Alice Cooper, to name just two—it just speaks to a very special and very funky time in the history of rock ‘n roll, all playing out right here in my ‘hood.

So yes, by all means, please do show me your collection of dental floss containers. I can’t wait…to see them….

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