“I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy.”
–my post on this page, 28 April 2010
Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a pack-rat.
As mentioned yesterday, I’m moving soon. And besides seeing friends and thinking deeply about the nature of transition and being, that means confronting the unsettling reality of my materialism. The truth of the matter is that while I aspire to not be materialistic and I kind of disdain the acquisition of stuff, I feel an overbearing attachment to almost everything I’ve accumulated. Not just papers, as mentioned in the quote up top, but pretty much everything.
Part of this stems from the belief that I will someday be a known novelist and thus all of my papers will be interesting to archivists who want to understand the roots of my writing better. I am aware that this sounds fairly egotistical, but then, as I discussed once with debaters on a long car ride back from somewhere north (I remember Henry and Jasmeet were novices, so it was some time ago), writing is a slightly egotistical pursuit – one has to believe that one has something worthy of convincing others, worthy of saying to people, worthy of their time and attention. (Incidentally, this is part of why my writing took such a hit in the wake of the divorce – such a rejection is about the most crushing thing one can face to the idea that one has worth in the world or advice worth giving.)
But I have to admit that I found an eerie familiarity in a This American Life piece on Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” that I heard while sanding luminarias in the run-up to last Christmas Eve. In brief, he boxed 621 of these “time capsules” full of personal junk and passed it off as “art”. While the veneer is that Warhol was once again doing something transcendentally original and avant garde and before his time, the reality is decidedly more pedestrian and human.
“[His assistant] suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won’t eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time… He’d found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.”
-Starlee Kine, This American Life Episode 514
One of the problems with debaters is that we are notoriously good at justifying things. Anything. It’s even an exercise I have people do when they’re coming up in debate. Some people call it “defending the indefensible” but my version is called a Two-Minute Drill where you have to talk, no matter what, for two solid minutes on a pre-determined stance that absolutely no one would agree with. People get good at this in debate, to the point where if they lose sight of their moral compass or never had much of a functioning one to begin with, they can become truly effective awful people. More on this later (not today).
So I’m good at telling myself, every time it’s time to pick up, pack up, and move, why I have two land-line telephones or five ethernet cables or that string of Christmas lights that would probably work if I switched out the one bulb with that one from the set of extras. Why I have my entire archive of papers from Glide (multiple boxes) that I was going to use to put together a non-profiteer portfolio for possible use in future hires, but that has remained taped shut through two moves and possibly counting, depending on whether I can just get the gumption to get rid of it already, or significantly pare it down. Why I have a Gamecube that Fish and I bought a decade ago that I haven’t hooked up in seven years.
My first inclination when I make these embarrassing revelations about myself and have to confront them is to get red-faced and hot-necked and have my eyes water up a little and try to forget this knowledge. My second, better, inclination is to talk about it on a public website so maybe there’s a chance I will have to face it head-on, fully, and, you know, do something about it.
My Dad has spoken to me a lot lately about what he calls the “Depression mentality” wherein those who lived through the Great Depression in America all became hoarders out of a survival instinct that stemmed from an era when nothing was taken for granted. He cites it to contrast with what he sees as the contemporary sense of entitlement that those in my generation and younger carry, the disposability of an era when shortages aren’t real and durable goods, while perhaps not actually durable, are cheap and plentiful. And while I can see the point that he’s making sometimes, I think that somehow I inherited the Depression mentality straight from my grandparents. Part of it, I know, is an inborn frugality whose precise roots I can’t trace that I’ve only recently (probably post-divorce) been able to shake off enough to have a little fun and relax about money. But once I’ve plunked down money for something, I have a really hard time letting go of it, especially if the resale value is paltry in comparison to what was paid upfront. I don’t really care that much about money in the day-to-day, but confronting taking a heavy loss on an item or its purchase being wasted just seems intolerable to me for reasons I can’t fully grasp.
And some of the stuff, or a lot of it, carries a sentimental burden. I’m a more emotional and feeling person than most and was raised from a young age to anthropomorphize objects of all sorts (my mother was raised on “crying peas,” but pretty much every appliance in our household was capable of speech). There’s the box of photos that I’m sure no one would begrudge (though some might prefer to organize). There’s allllllll of the books. All of them. Which is an issue I revisit frequently. I care deeply about the books I buy, even though most of them are used to begin with, and keeping all of them like a little memory of everything I’ve read. I love the look and feel and heft of books and the feel they give when reading them and I am truly one of those people who believes this process can never ever be replaced by screens no matter how many trees it costs, even though I know there’s probably something wrong with that sentiment. But. But. When I really examine how often I’m going back to these books, it’s a little uncertain, a little fishy. I’m not a re-reader at all… I can count on two hands the number of books I’ve read even a second time. It just feels like opportunity cost to me in a world where I’ll never read a fraction of what I want to. So, why keep them all?
I have this fantasy I’ve long harbored around the idea of having a child or maybe even children someday and having a library, shelves and shelves floor-to-ceiling, all with ramshackle uneven copies of books in the editions that I read along my journey. And my not-yet-sleepy 12-year-old comes bounding into the library where I am typing away on my umpteenth novel and shyly asks if we can pick out a book together. And as we peruse the shelves for new discoveries, I tell stories of where the book came from and the layout of the bookstore or the friend who gave me that copy and what life used to be. And later, as I tuck the child in after they’ve long since fallen asleep, I slide a gentle bookmark into the place where they’ve sandwiched their index finger, look at the old worn pages and my child and feel that everything has been for a reason.
I spend an inordinate time thinking about this future, doubly so for someone who is still quite uncertain about the desire to have children and how good a father they might make. For one thing, I should probably first learn how to throw something out before I try to raise someone else to make decisions on this planet, no?
(Brief Pascal’s wagery aside: Hi, future child! I’m really glad I had you! Isn’t it crazy that we invented the Internet so you can read about all your father’s insecurities at an age when I probably am unsure if you should even have a computer yet? Love you!)
I think the deepest roots of all this accidental materialism come from a really fundamental irony. Namely, that my discomfort with throwing things away is rooted in the idea of a deeper discomfort with the notion of waste. It’s bad enough, it goes in my mind, that we have to have stuff at all or that I am often convinced to buy it. But to get it and then no longer have use for it, to fill the landfill with items whose purchase could have bought food for hungry people who were dying, this is unforgivable. But instead of make use of it or do anything purposeful, I pay still more to lug it around from one state to another, replacing one guilt with a slightly shallower one. It’s actually kind of sick when you think about it.
Wow, I just really figured that out when typing this thing out. The values of writing in an unbridled and on-the-fly fashion never cease to impress. Huh.
So, yeah, I’m carting around a lot of stuff I’ll never use so I don’t have to feel even worse for having never used it. When I think about it like that, it makes me a lot more optimistic that I will actually get out some trash bags tomorrow, or at least spend some time on EBay (there’s till a market for used land-line phones, right?).
And then there’s the in-between stuff, the occasional-use stuff, that’s harder to discern. Tabling for a moment the notion of whether I will someday have a great library of well-loved books to proffer to my offspring (and whether they will even read non-digital books), what of infrequently played board games? Papers of some greater significance than work archives but still uncertain use (e.g. movie ticket stubs, cards, ballgame tickets, scribbled concert setlists)? Halloween decorations that I decided to collect at some point because of a love of the holiday but barely manage the organization to actually utilize? Cheap but replaceable pots and pans?
And then there’s all the stuff that most people would probably not think twice about parting with that I feel most tied to. Old T-shirts of fondly recalled events or places. Oldish stuffed animals, somewhere between the oldest and most loved (obvious keepers) and the newest and most relevant (hey, I have a lot of stuffed animals, okay?). Did I mention books? Because there are a lot of books.
There’s a point in this process, every move, when I decide that I’m going to create a great pile in the yard and have a bonfire and that I will feel this immense liberation at seeing the last few items smolder and turn to ash that will override the pangs of remorseful sadness and loss that would no doubt accompany. But an hour spent lingering on certain books, stuffed animals, and photos convinces me this isn’t a realistic option. So too, of course, the need to not live in an empty box in polite society. The desire to have furniture on which to plop and tables on which to set things and dressers and hampers and dishes. Modern life is all about the stuff, even for those who don’t like stuff. You need stuff to function, you’re constantly interacting with it. So even the bonfire just means a big bill is coming as you replace it with more stuff. Cue the horrible guilt about waste.
So what is to be done? How do I navigate the relatively few days I have to convert this sprawling apartment into a neat row of folded, taped cardboard squares? Having not made it big yet, the Andy Warhol option is regrettably out. And the shed in the backyard looks a little too flammable for my more pyrotechnic plans. Finding the right balance in the middle, to find just the right blend of freedom, sentimentality, wastelessness, frugality, and reasonability is something I must face on my own. Unless, of course, I can interest you in a used ethernet cable.