Photo: Peretz PartenskyIt’s hard to put a finger on the exact moment the crap took over Americans’ lives, but I know exactly when it happened to me. And as we head into a day of national gluttony followed by a collective, orgiastic display of shopping, I’ve resolved to do more than weather the onslaught. I want to look into my own personal relationship with crap — and I hope others will, too.
My story starts in 1997, when I moved from Montana to a small town in Colorado, where I’d landed my first paying job in journalism. I made the trip in my Toyota Tercel wagon — and I brought everything I owned with me.
A decade later, when my wife and I decamped for the East Coast, it took a 24-foot rental truck to accomplish the same task — and that was after two epic yard sales, in which my wife and mother-in-law, inveterate saleswomen, unloaded all manner of junk on the unsuspecting public, including a jungle of half-dead house plants, a pile of dirty cinderblocks, a dozen half-used cans of paint, and a 40-year-old ten-speed bike with two flat tires.
I remember driving across Kansas, thinking that there was a lifetime of accumulated posessions in the back of that truck. No doubt each item had some special meaning, but at that moment, it all seemed like useless baggage. “I could drive this thing into a lake,” I thought, “and be done with it forever.”
Everything I really gave a damn about — my wife, our 3-year-old daughter Lucia, and the dog — had gone ahead in our new Subaru. Was there anything back there that I’d miss? My bike, I decided — I’d be crippled without that. But it was the last thing to go in, so I could always pull it out, then drive the truck into the lake.
Fortunately for my junk (and my marriage) Kansas does not abound in lakes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m fond of my stuff. I have enough skiing and mountain climbing gear to outfit a Himalayan expedition. I steadfastly cling to the notion that I must own a copy of every book that I’ve ever read. And in my decade and a half as a journalist, I’ve amassed a formidable archive of notes, folders, and three-volume environmental impact statements. My wife’s weaknesses seem to be in clothes, kitchen gadgets, and knicknacks. (Ask me about the ceramic cats her parents picked up on their honeymoon sometime.)
These hoarding tendencies would be fine if we were the sort of people who kept everything in its place. We’re not. Neither of us inherited that gene. My wife’s shoes litter the house like beer bottles after a bender. (The dog does his part by scattering our footwear to the far corners of the property.) And me? I will someday be found dead beneath the pile of papers that have avalanched off my desk.
Add two kids to the mix and you have a recipe for complete domestic disaster. Lucia, now 7, has amassed a menagerie of stuffed animals so vast that the creatures boil from beneath her bed and skitter across the floors. Her little sister, 3, likes to torture her by hiding the “stuffies” behind the furniture, where I swear they breed. Then there are the LEGOs and the blocks and the crayons and the puzzle pieces — and 1,001 children’s books that would probably be better used if half of them were donated to the library.
At our house, the crap rules. But it’s getting better, thanks to a little unintended experiment we’ve recently undertaken.
Two months ago, we uprooted again and moved cross-country (hopefully for the last time) to Seattle. Our lives were in such upheaval — a new job for me, new schools for the kids, a huge question mark for my wife — that there was no time to unpack all those boxes. Instead, we unloaded what we needed to survive day-to-day and shoved the rest into closets or the basement.
And there it has stayed — it’s amazing how little we miss the junk.
Every time we rifle through boxes to find some lost implement, we come up with a dozen other things that we didn’t miss, and add them to the growing mountain of giveaways in the basement. Sure, the house is still a wreck. But it’s a manageable wreck. It is possible to get from one room to another without fear of tripping over something and breaking your neck. The children, bereft of most of their toys, actually play with the handful of things that we’ve unpacked for them.
Last week, as I sat at my computer preparing to write this column, Lucia climbed into my lap. We watched Annie Leonard’s animated short, The Story of Stuff, in which she explains what goes into making the crap we accumulate and where it goes when we’re done with it. Of all the products we buy, Leonard says, only 1 percent is still being used half a year later: “Ninety-nine percent of this stuff is trashed in six months.” Meanwhile, for every can of garbage we haul out to the curb, 70 cans of waste were generated “upstream” — in the making and shipping of the product.
When the film ended, I asked Lucia what she thought. She was quiet. Thinking. Then she hopped off my lap and went on with her day. I wouldn’t have known that anything had come of it if my wife hadn’t mentioned a few days later that Lucia had given her an earful. “See that, mom? That’s stuff. That? Stuff. That? More stuff!” She even allowed that she could live with a little less of it.
No doubt over time our belongings will begin to expand to fill our half-empty home. (In the immortal words of George Carlin, a house is just “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”) But we’re talking about finding a smaller place, purging still more of the clutter. There’s even a little houseboat for sale down on the water. Maybe, just maybe, we could boil our belongings down to the point where we could make a fast getaway — no need for the moving truck this time, or ever again.
At any rate, this Black Friday, you won’t find this guy at the mall. I’m going to be busy taking a load of stuff to Goodwill (Ceramic cats be warned!) — and maybe dropping by the SPCA to get a few stuffies neutered. I’ve got better things to do with my time than managing crap. How about you?
Get Grist in your inbox