There’s something about recycling that tugs at stuff deep inside me –probably guilt. And although I recognize the inevitable retrospective falsification of memory that accompanies retirement, I am sometimes amazed at the profligacy of times past. I honestly don’t recall feeling shamed if the clerk at the store put my liquorice gum-balls and packages of Double Bubble into a bag. Perhaps I didn’t live in the kind of historically revisionisitic part of Winnipeg that felt called to the pulpit of blatant stigmatization, or maybe they hadn’t yet invented plastic bags, I’m not sure. But I do seem to remember throwing stuff away willy-nilly –and feeling unduly righteous whenever I remembered to put it in a trash bin. In fact, we all felt a frisson of pride if we could nail the can from across the alley without the bag breaking open.
That’s all gone now. Garbage has been redefined –it’s no longer merely the stuff you don’t want, it’s now only those items that cannot be reused or recycled. I wonder how they know… I assume there is a mandatory training period -an apprenticeship and exams before they get the job- but I’ve often wondered if the garbage attendants simply feel the bags –too rumply-pumply, leave them; too heavy, turn the can upside down and drive away.
I suspect we are all acutely aware of what we discard nowadays though. We’re afraid of being spotted carrying an unemptied trash can back to the house. It is no small thing to mess with the prevailing ethos. Maybe it’s something as simple as the epigenetic modulation of a gene, originally designed for the safe disposal of our bodily wastes. A repurposed gene – a kluge of atavistic instructions. An exaptation.
And yet, I sometimes wonder if we already have a purpose-built recycling gene that springs into action once we’ve passed a certain age and the degradation products start being recycled into those plaques and tangles we’re always reading about -stuff our brains used to throw away, and still would if we had also evolved little bins in there for them. But no, like me, the brain decides to store things in the garage in hopes it will someday come in handy. Of course then, also like me, it forgets about them and pretty soon you can’t use the car…
Anyway, recycling comes naturally to us older people, I think. Reduce; reuse; and recycle -right? Well, now that I’m retired, and looking for another purpose –anything, really- I’ve decided I’m ideally situated to champion reduction. You have to start somewhere, and since I’m on a reduced income, I’ve already reduced the number of vacations I take… Mind you, reducing them from one a year does not pose any particular sacrifice, but at least it’s an attempt at exaptation. Let’s face it, ‘vacation’ is a relative term anyway, and my own particular Weltanschauung usually allows a lot of leeway. For example, how many people really visit their city? Tour the food court in every mall? How many can say they’ve experienced the ambience of every Starbucks or sampled the washrooms in each and every MacDonald’s in the town center?
But, of course, recycling involves more than just reducing vacations, eh? I figure most of us older folk have a head start on the reuse part of the equation, too. Think about the last time any of us bought a pair of pants. I mean, pants last forever when you don’t have to worry about fashion. And anyway, people let elders wear pretty well anything nowadays. You don’t even have to iron it either: rumples and cockled patches are taken as bona fides of laundering and that’s what society obsesses about. And in a strange sort of ironic pathetic fallacy, the kids are even starting to copy our styles. I don’t want to be macabre or anything, but I think a good historical case could also be made for Age being the ultimate recycle: earth to earth…
But that would be too morbid for Brien, too cognizant of the finality of passage. Too… confirming. My friend lives in a porch-world and has a deep-seated reluctance to concede that he will one day have to relinquish it. Indeed, any suspicion that I am implying such a fate, has to be preceded by a ‘may’ –a type 1 conditional, although he always insists it is a type 2 whenever I confront him with it. But since neither of us knows what the types mean anyway, I usually leave it fallow. Anyway, Brien needs an out with respect to his future, and will not countenance any reference to it as a certainty.
No, for Brien the porch, with a ready supply of munchies and beer, are enough to define his present and future realities. I no longer argue the point, but I do visit him frequently to bounce other ideas off him. If I catch him in the right mood, I always learn more than I bring.
Last week, enthused by a dusty recycling box I discovered in a closet, I decided to canvass his opinion on the subject. It was a warm, windless day in June, and neatly tended flowers sat smugly in their little weeded beds in every yard I passed along the way. The smell of freshly mown lawns hung in the still air like an ecological after-shave and blue recycling boxes with their attendant yard trimming bags hunched as motionless at the curb as old men waiting for a bus.
But Brien’s yard, in comparison, seemed as barren as tundra. I always expect to spot an Inukshuk hidden somewhere in the neglected clumps of grass that crowd along the broken concrete sidewalk to his porch like hairs not shaven on a neck. His yard does not look dishevelled so much as unadorned, though. Brien does not litter, but neither does he decorate. I have always felt he tolerates nature as it comes; he does not insist on trimming it to fashion.
He was sitting on his porch when I arrived, and I could see his eyes slowly walking between Sheda, his favourite tree, and the intervening grass.
“You’re late,” he mumbled as I carefully avoided the broken step leading up to the porch.
I sighed as I sat in a rickety little folding chair beside him. “Late for what?” I asked, smiling bravely as I tried to get comfortable in the hard chair.
“Just did the lawn,” he said.
I glanced at the possibly shorter, but decidedly ragged grass. “What exactly did you do to it?”
“Tidied it up a bit.” Actually, it looked like a child’s head after coming out of the bath. “Missed a few bits I guess,” he added, pointing to the random scattering of rebellious clumps just now beginning to climb back onto their feet.
I stared at his face to see if he was playing with me, but he was all business. “Brien, it looks like you just walked around on it to flatten it out…” I was trying to be funny, but his serious expression remained.
“Reuse comes before recycle, eh?” He pointed to the line of blue boxes and yard clippings I’d seen along the curb. “So does reduce, for that matter,” he mumbled, obviously pleased that he could apply that word as well. “Don’t see one of those wasteful bags at my curb do you?” His eyes raked my face, challenging me to find one, as his head shook from side to side with obvious pride. “Natural recycling, I figure… Want a beer, by the way?”
I nodded at a face that was beaming like a cherub and I decided not to ask him about my own blue box.