01 October 2014

Death in Palm Springs, A

I recently returned from a couple days in Palm Springs, California -- the land of movie stars, golf courses, desert landscaping and storage units. I was not involved with any of the former, but lots and lots of the latter.

The reason for my trip was the untimely death, a couple years ago, of a friend of mine. We had known each other more than fifteen years and shared a common passion for vintage melamine. It was something I’d been interested in for about fifteen years; but he had me beat: he’d been collecting and researching it since the mid-1970s.
His intent all these years was to write the comprehensive encyclopaedia of melamine to be exhaustively researched, documented and compiled with the help of several other researchers, including me. We exchanged notes for more than a decade. I, and the others, kept encouraging him to get going on the encyclopaedia. Despite the fact that he had thousands of pieces of vintage melamine stored in two huge storage units, he didn’t yet have enough. He kept buying and assembling, hoping to have everything in place before he started writing.

Then, one day, he cut his leg at work. It wouldn’t heal so he went to the doctor. They said he had an infection and gave him some medicine. When it still wouldn’t heal, they said it was a different infection and gave him a different medicine. Long story short, turns out he had stage-four pancreatic cancer. He underwent treatments, including proton beam therapy, and came out all cured. Six months later he was dead. Apparently, he hadn’t been as cured as the doctors thought.

Despite the fact he insisted he had a will (years before all this happened), he died without one. His family wanted to sell the contents of the storage units, but no one who had the money was interested in the contents, and no one with interest in the contents had the money. Frustrated after two years of no sale, they told me they were going to abandon the units and I had a week to go there and take whatever I wanted. Living a few hours drive from Palm Springs I leapt at the chance. My spouse and I went over, spent two days going through many hundreds of boxes, found lots of stuff and came home.

From this exhausting exercise, I learned a great many things: have a will (I do), do not have a storage unit (I don’t), if you have to store and organize research materials do not combine many subjects into a single box (each subject gets its own box) and make sure to give people what you want them to have when you’re still alive and not after you’re dead -- that’s the only way to guarantee they’ll get it, will or no will.

But, most important I learned that, if you’re researching something in which you have a passion, don’t wait to publish until you have every last speck of information on the subject. Publish now, either online or otherwise, and change it as new information comes along. No sense spending thirty years researching something only to die before you’ve printed a single word.

You can find my research into mid-twentieth-century plastics here.

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