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Exercise #20: Paper That Changed Your Life

Mental Note #7639471

Larry M. was my roommate for the semester we spent at the University of Dallas Rome Campus. He was one of the gang that traveled to London together before the start of the semester for a week and then took the train to Rome by way of Paris. He was my companion on several weekend trips out of Rome, too, including Florence, Munich, Salzberg, and the ill-fated attempt to get to Malta for Easter, which was aborted in Siracusa, Siciliy, when we found that the boats were all booked up, and then turned semi-tragic when we were robbed at gunpoint in a pizzeria in Messina on the night before Easter.

Larry used to carry a tiny notebook everywhere he went, into which he would write notes about photos he’d taken, places to visit and sights to see, addresses, hours of operation, Italian phrases, and so on. He filled several such notebooks, I think, as the semester wore on. One day, in circumstances that have completely escaped my memory, he wrote a note to me that said:

Mental Note #7639471
Don’t, under any
circumstances, associate
with Assholes.

I apparently found this to be such good and useful advice at the time that I folded up the tiny scrap of paper and stashed it in a safe place in my wallet. (He must have written the note some time after Easter weekend, because the note wasn’t lost with the wallet that was stolen in the Sicilian robbery.)

The semester ended and we all went home. My sister Anne was taking a photography course the next semester at University of Houston, and she made black-and-white enlargements of a few of my Rome semester photos to decorate my dorm room. One of them was a shot of Larry and our friend Alexandra sitting on my bunk bed in our dorm room in Rome. At some point in the fall semester of 1983, I cleaned out my wallet and found Mental Note #7639471. I placed it inside the acrylic box-frame with the 8 x 10 photo of Larry and Alexandra. It stayed there for as long as I kept those photos. Visitors to my dorm room and later apartments would move in close to find out what the little scrap of paper in the corner of the frame was, and then grins would break out on their faces as they read Larry’s messy college-kid chicken-scratchy handwriting.

Eventually, I got tired of looking at the photos, so I pitched the aging acrylic frames and packed away the photos. I still told the story of that note, though, whenever I wanted to talk about Larry and the fun times we shared in Rome. The note went with the enlargements into a box of photos, and that’s where Gayle, my professional organizer friend, found it a few weeks ago as we were working on a project to sort and categorize my old photos. She said, “You wanna tell me about this?” and handed me the yellowed piece of 26-year-old paper. The characteristic frayed edge that results from being torn out of a spiral notebook was still intact. The scrap had been folded again in storage, and the fold lines were fragile and crumbling.

There wasn’t much to tell her about the fragment. I didn’t remember what prompted Larry to write the note. I only knew that it had meant a lot to me at the time as a symbol of our friendship. To me, that note meant far more than what its words said. It also meant, “The world is full of assholes, but you and I have each other.”

I’ve come a long way since I first carried that note around as a touchstone next to my 20-year-old butt. So when Gayle unearthed it again, I had a good laugh, told her an unrelated story or two about Larry (who long ago took on the much more serious and dignified moniker of “Lawrence”), and put the note into a small stack of materials designated for scanning and demolition. I scanned the note, put the JPEG image online in an album of UD photos on Facebook, and tossed the ancient scrap of paper into the recycling bin.

On top of the old story of my friendship with Larry that the note symbolized—the story of all the support, kindness, and patience he offered me through the rough years of college—I’ve added a new layer of meaning. The note now signifies my ability and willingness to transcend the “stuff” that I’ve imbued with meaning in my life, and instead to embrace and cherish the meaning in its purer form. We human beings love to create meaning—it is, to use the old cliché, “what separates us from the beasts.” We make meaning, we assign meaning, we collect and hoard and share meaning. Our lives become full of things that signify something to us, things that remind us of an event or person, some treasured experience or emotional state.

But things can never be more than just things. Paper can’t be more than just paper, no matter if King John or John Hancock or Elvis himself once handled it and wrote on it. And as much as we are free to assign meaning, it’s also in our power to take it away, to release meaning from the objects to which we’ve ascribed it and into the realm of pure forms. And so, although the paper form of Mental Note #7639471 has gone off to be recycled, the significance of Mental Note #7639471 will always be with me.

Note: The prompt for today was to “tell a story about a piece of paper that changed your life.”

© 2009 Edward F. Gumnick

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