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Paper Clips And Cemetery Stones


Small things make a difference. For example, as an old folk tale has it, a pebble in your shoe can cause more pain than a rock in your pocket.

And wasn’t it New York’s Mayor Giuliani who demonstrated that big city crime and grime could be reversed by first righting the little things – the broken windows of urban blight and the “squeegees” at red traffic lights?

So, too, every alert businessman knows that profitability depends on controlling costs, and that discipline includes – indeed, begins with – the small things. Things like paper clips.

Take a moment to think about it. After outfitting any office with the ordinary staples of daily usage, such as notepads, pencils and, yes, staples, at least one such item might never (or, at the least, hardly ever) need re-purchasing: paper clips. Treated properly, they come with a limitless life expectancy and infinite usages. Even when abused, as when a small one is used to grope too thick a bunch of papers, paper clips often will rebound into a somewhat fit, albeit crippled, shape.

Almost weightless and normally untethered, there is a permanence of place for clips and their box. Applied without intrusion and removed with nary a scar, availability is nevertheless maintained in rough balance despite random flows in and out. It all works with awesome, wondrous spontaneity due, I would suppose, to the existential nature of the paper clip.

Some might challenge the near perfection of the paper clip, but in my view the re-circulating alternatives fall short of the ideal. The rubber band? Yes, it circulates, but it also too easily stretches out from normal use, or wears down and breaks long before any self-respecting, non-abused paper clip.

The old-fashioned, non-electronic alternative to e-mail known as the “inter-office envelope?” Forget about it. Not the slightest chance that the readily torn envelope and its string enclosure could approach the useful life of the resilient clip.

No, the paper clip represents unrivaled, world-class durability, adaptability, and so much more. This incredibly practical tool suffers from no apparent defect. There’s just nothing to fix or improve, due to its simple, circulatory essence. Which is why I write of it (perhaps too much) here and at this time.

Now is, after all, the traditional time of year when many Jews remember and respect departed family and friends through the ritual of visiting their graves. So much so, that, typically, two or three times each September, Sunday drivers re-enact pre-Quickway Sunday traffic jams of, say, 1949-1952. “Old Route 17″ reappears within the narrowest possible cemetery roads (more precisely, walkways or horse trails) blocked by cars obliviously parked or going the wrong way against one-way streets. If you’re lucky in the course of such anarchic confusion, your car’s progress will stall near an old fashioned “unveiling” where a folding table might offer a shot and a slice. (That’s honey cake, stranger.)

It’s all very personal, how and what one does in front of their deceased. Some touch or lean upon the tombstone, where others dare not; some stand silently, while others speak aloud as if to the living; some pray, others stare, still others cry.

It’s doubtful that such behavior has been studied very much, if at all. Probably best described as highly idiosyncratic, it seems odd that the visitors’ common exercise is for the most part uncommonly performed. Excepting certain prayers said by those who formally pray, for most it appears that their only shared practice is the somewhat quaint act of placing a stone marker atop the visited gravestone.

While its significance is felt, its purpose seems largely unknown. As an exercise, ask around for its meaning or history, and you should hear, with one exception, one uncertain answer after another. The one exception, as you may have guessed, is “I don’t know.”

No matter, what we do know is that stones are left behind, regardless of reason.

For decades, it was the easiest of rituals to perform. No longer, however. Perhaps not yet widely recognized, let this alert you to another shared cemetery experience that in recent years has grown to become a common problem: finding stones. Haven’t you noticed? They’re gone.

Maybe not as catastrophic as an office without paper clips, a cemetery without stones is more than a mere annoyance. Though harmless, it’s still upsetting. Search as you may, other than the smallest and thinnest of pebbles, a reasonably small stone is nearly impossible to find. At least once in the past few years have you not asked yourself (or anybody or nobody in particular) “Didn’t there used to be plenty of stones here?”

There were, but they’ve disappeared. How and where have they gone? Surely the cemetery’s landscape crew cannot be picking up stones while never bending to remove weeds. Within the confines of a cemetery, stones should re-circulate forever, as they once did.

All of this would be understandable if someone at the cemetery entrance would be selling a small bucket of stones (like golf balls at a practice range) or if the unfailing recirculation of paper clips were also to stop. If the former occurred we’d recognize crass commercialization; in the latter case, perhaps global warming could be blamed. (Can you imagine how awful it would be if what befouled the cemetery stones were to affect paper clips as well?)

So, then, I present this aggravating mystery with no clue to its resolution. Other than the advice that follows, all that can be offered are sincere wishes for a healthy, good new year, plus two specific pleas: may the shortage of stones be your worst problem; and may you continue to search for those stones for many more years. In the meantime, I advise that you bring your own.

Arnold Mazur is an attorney and businessman who retired at an early age to, in his words, “do nothing.” Occasionally, he writes.

About the Author: Arnold Mazur is a retired attorney and business executive who, defying the Arab boycott office, was first to establish in Israel a subsidiary of a major U.S. software company.


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