Active Relaxation, stamp collection style

I’m not generally a big fan of mindless relaxation. Reading a good book in a comfortable location is about the closest I get to really taking it easy most of the time. But after the semester was over, I needed to take some time away from books. I had several that I wanted to read over the break – important scholarly monographs that would probably help me prepare for next semester. But so far I haven’t been able to pick them up. I have been doing a lot of what I’m calling “active relaxation,” which involves some mindless activity (like watching tv) paired with some other activity. This other activity is usually organizational in nature, because I find organization relaxing. So this winter break has been partially consumed with starting a huge organizational project: reorganizing my grandfather’s stamp collection.

It’s a huge collection, spanning well over a hundred years and including nearly every country around the globe. It has everything from nice examples of early United States stamps (some predating the Civil War), stamps issued under the Third Reich (with swastikas and everything), to commemorative collections from the 1990s and stamps from countries that no longer exist. My grandfather was an avid collector for a large portion of his life, but it seems to me that he was more interested in acquiring stamps than in organizing them. Not only does the collection contain thousands of loose stamps waiting to be chronologically or thematically sorted and mounted, but it also contains seven albums that cover roughly the same countries and periods – meaning that there are significant overlaps that need to be harmonized. It’s a big project, and will likely take me many years to complete.

Organizing this collection, as my wife reminded me, is a great example of something I learned this semester: big projects are just a bunch of little projects in disguise. Figuring out how to break up this organizational task into smaller pieces isn’t terribly challenging, considering that the stamps of each country are generally grouped together and then organized by date. For countries with a lot of stamps, finding some easy date cutoff further subdivides the work. I finished organizing the 19th century United States stamps last night. Tonight I’m going on to 1900-1920.

And this brings me back to the relaxation aspect. I’m not doing this because it needs to be done. I’m doing it because it is relaxing, keeps my mind vaguely occupied, and engages my organizational senses. It’s fine with me if organizing a little piece of the collection is all I manage to do during winter break. Maybe those books get read and maybe they don’t. But taking it easy is the most important part, because we’re only ten days from the beginning of the new semester, and I want to be well-rested to face it.

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