Sitzfleisch

Anyone who’s known me for a while knows what it means for me to throw something away. I wear my clothing until it is literally threadbare, not because I cannot afford to buy a new pair of pants to replace the ones whose hems are in tatters, but because the longer they belong to me, the more I love them. When I’m translating, I keep my place on the page with a little orange ruler I’ve had in my possession since I was in elementary school. I treasure it. So you can imagine what it means for me to throw away a chair I’ve owned since the fall of 1990. The chair itself was nothing special – a child’s desk chair purchased at IKEA for $25 on the occasion of moving into my first shared apartment as a PhD student at Princeton University. This was in the Butler Apartment complex on Harrison Street, a conglomeration of little aluminum trailers that the U.S. government put up right after WWII to accommodate married soldiers attending Princeton on the G.I. Bill. I think they were originally meant to stand for 5 or 10 years, but after a certain point Princeton took them over and converted them into semi-permanent graduate student residences. Basically the complex was a trailer park, complete with clotheslines strung between buildings for drying one’s wash. The walls were of aluminum very slightly insulated with something or other, and in winter each apartment’s one hot-air heater blew its stingy stream of warmth directly at the front door.

By the time I completed my doctorate in 1998, I had clocked a good five years sitting in that chair, and it also spent three years in storage while I held a job in Stuttgart and then traveled to Berlin for dissertation research. I rolled about on its plastic wheels in two different linoleum-floored apartments in the Butler complex and then on the narrow wooden planks of an attic room on Nassau Street where I finished my thesis. I’d say I spent nearly as much time in the chair as out of it, practicing a skill known in German as “Sitzfleisch” – literally “sitting flesh” (referring to the gluteus maximus), but the word really means the stick-to-it-ness needed to get anything of substance done. For better or worse, the vast majority of the work performed by those of us in the literary professions is done sitting down.

My desk chair accompanied me to my first post-degree teaching job at Bard College in the Hudson Valley, into the Catskill Mountains, and then back south to New York City. For the better part of 13 years, it was the only work chair I sat in. I translated something on the order of 20 books sitting in it. And now look at it: so old its foam padding has disintegrated and crumbled out through spots where the fabric cover has worn away. The mechanism, never terribly sturdy to begin with, has developed a distinct wobble. The chair has outlived its usefulness. I just bought a new one. And feel like a traitor. Do we owe it to the objects in our lives to keep them forever? Here’s one for the Museum of Treasured Discarded Objects: One desk chair, well-loved.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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