Friday, September 01, 2006

Do You Have Too Much Stuff?

This article is meant to be a rant somewhat in the style and tone of Dennis Miller. Although some people think of him as cynical and negative, others love his biting sarcasm. Personally, I like his erudite humor, his obscure references, his sheer imagination, and his highly intelligent and insightful grasp of the contours of whatever problem he takes on. I may not have any of those qualities here, but nevertheless, please imagine his voice and mannerisms and delivery as you read this.


Let's talk about the STUFF we own for a minute. Everybody I know seems to accumulate too much STUFF and doesn't quite know what to do with it.

But our economy, in fact, our whole capitalist ideology, depends upon us buying all this STUFF. We train our children at the television altar every day to buy STUFF. TV Commercials now take up more time than the actual TV shows, and all they are is blatant, blaring, obnoxious ads screaming at us with their psychologically crafted demands intended to trigger the buying impulse of millions of us to go out, spend all of our money, and even borrow some that we don't have, in order to keep the engine of our consumer-driven economy running by buying more and more... STUFF!

Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but do we really need to keep accumulating all this STUFF the way flypaper picks up carpet lint? Are we just stockpiling items of material wealth for some near-future time when our whole economy finally comes crashing down around our ears, so that even if we can no longer afford to buy bread to eat, at least we’ll own the latest high-tech Sharper Image remote-control programmable toaster?

What IS it with us? Do we really need to be super-glued to all this STUFF we buy? Are we addicted to this orgy of conspicuous consumption? Could this be why the 2nd world and the 3rd world hate us so much? Perhaps it is not really because of politics and religion, but it’s just that they are jealous because we have more comforts and conveniences than they do. Could it be because we’re spending our time worrying about superficial, trivial pursuits like whether we should be buying the big Lexus SUV or the smaller BMW SUV, while much of the world out there is trying to decide which bugs to eat today?

Why can’t they just be satisfied with their moral superiority over us? Can’t they just call us decadent, hedonistic, selfish slobs, and then smirk their elite little smiles of smug superior satisfaction, and leave us be? After all, that makes them the enlightened spiritual types, and us the lowly materialistic heathen that don't get the big picture, correct?
I mean, if they are chasing bigger dreams like the betterment of mankind’s fate on this planet, or sussing out God's Plan for the universe, and all we’re doing is cramming toaster-ovens, waffle-irons, and cappuccino machines into our already over-crowded little shacks like over-zealous squirrels trying to pack too many nuts into their cubby-hole in the tree, then maybe they should stop hating us and just pity us in our blind, pointless obsessions. We're harmless. Maybe they should just consider us nothing more than naive little children playing our kiddie games on their lawn, while they contemplate the deeper, more adult issues worthy of the higher, more evolved souls that they are. We will have to satisfy ourselves with our electric toothbrushes - the ones with the replaceable tips.

Actually, truth be told, we are not quite so oblivious to the true meaning and value of life as our detractors would like to think. It's just that our society is based upon an economic engine, and that engine needs to be maintained by having us buy all this STUFF. The goods must flow. And the cash with it. We are only doing our civic and national duty. When we buy our $2000 plasma screen TV, and our state-of-the-art cell phone that also takes pictures, movies, gets emails, and plays mp3's, we are helping to keep the economy working. And that keeps other people working. When we sign up for a 5 year loan to buy a $40,000 car, we're not just indulging our appetite for luxury, we are really just taking one for the team. We are heroes with charge cards!

There ought to be a statue of my wife outside a Wal-Mart somewhere. She's certainly done more than her fair share trying to keep companies like them in business, and keep all their thousands of employees working away. After so many years of buying their STUFF, we have a sizeable chunk of their past inventory stored at our house, by now.

But I didn't really want to talk about wealth or materialism here. I’m not talking about the people with deep pockets looking to empty them in order to acquire the latest flashiest toys. And I’m also not complaining about the inequality of distribution of wealth around the world. That is a subject for a whole other rant. I’m actually just talking about regular people like you and me who have been caught up in the typical American lifestyle and who have, in the natural course of day-to-day existence in this modern suburb-centric society, accumulated too much STUFF. Cheap stuff. Household stuff. Stuff from Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

If you want to split out some guilty head from the herd to examine as a fer-instance, look no farther than me. Hello, my name is Val and I’m a STUFF-o-HOLIC. I am as guilty of this as anyone, almost. I do have a ridiculous amount of STUFF. Most of it is probably worthless or old or whatever, but I can't seem to be able to bring myself to throw it away the way I keep thinking most sensible people must do. And selling it on ebay seems to be just too much trouble, or it takes too much time and I am always pressed for time.

Case in point: We have a canoe. It was a birthday gift for my wife who begged for it for 2 years. I resisted for a while because it seemed impractical, but finally, once we were living on the lake, I gave in and bought it for her. It has been used exactly twice. Each time for less than an hour.
Since then, it has been taking up space for the past 5 years. I need to sell the darn thing, but it takes time to clean it up, take the photos, and sign up on eBay to sell it, and then try to find somebody local who will come and pick it up – because I am sure as hell not spending an entire weekend trying to bubble-wrap and double-box a sixteen foot canoe.

Then there are bins and bins and bins of STUFF. The last time we moved was two and a half years ago, and in that move, I would like to say there were about 100 bins. And saying 200 bins would be closer, but, well, it was actually around 300 bins. What was in so many bins, you ask? Old sewing stuff, material, linen, towels, clothes, books, more books, record albums, CDs, cords and cables, stereo equipment, pots and pans, tools, garage stuff, garden stuff, chemical stuff, Christmas decorations, DVDs, tapes, photographs, files and records, receipts, baby stuff, kids stuff, kitchen stuff, closet stuff, drawers stuff, hobby stuff, craft stuff, I don't know, just - STUFF!

For the first few days after moving in to the new house, ALL the floor space in ALL the rooms were used up with 5 foot high stacks of bins and boxes (besides the 300 bins, there were also about 300 boxes too). I was wondering where I was going to put all that junk. This picture is not of my place, it was just meant to give an idea. In fact, my place was MUCH more densely packed, and stacked much higher. You had to half climb the stairs to look down on stacks of boxes and bins to hopefully find something you might be looking for. The new house was supposed to be bigger, and yet I couldn’t see where all this was going to go at first. It took 2 days just to clear pathways through the boxes enough to get from room to room, and get access to most of the stacks.
Well, slowly but surely, I got most of it all hidden away in shelves and drawers, and closets, and other places, and the house became livable. It's actually quite amazing that my house doesn't appear overly cluttered now. There is actually lots of floor space. But if you saw it on moving day, you would think it was never going to fit.
And even now, two and a half years later, the third garage at my house is STILL completely filled from wall to wall, front to back, and bottom to top of bins full of STUFF like that. All the walls are lined with shelves and all the shelves are stacked and stuffed with bins, and there is one narrow path about a foot wide that leads from the front to within 4 feet of the back.

I don’t know why people try to collect things when things just seem to collect all by themselves.

I probably need to be much better disciplined about throwing away old things - especially old magazines and books - but during the last move, I did throw away hundreds of old books. Books about old releases of software, old books from school, etc. I filled literally half the front yard with a pile 4 feet high in places and 25 ft around with junk I was throwing away and STILL there was enough STUFF to fill five moving trucks plus 7 loads in a full size van, and five loads in a minivan, and two loads in a pickup truck.

Where does all this STUFF come from? Well, let’s look at some examples, shall we?

Let's say you buy a wheelbarrow to do some work in your backyard. The job is done, you put the wheelbarrow in your garage, and now you have a wheelbarrow taking up precious space. Forever. You know you're never going to get rid of it because one day you're going to need one again, and then what are you going to do - go out and buy another one?? Of course not! You’ve already spent the money once, and they last forever pretty much. So you just keep it in the garage till you need it again. That makes sense, right? Then, one day you get a 2-wheeled dolly to move some furniture and STUFF around. Then you put it in your garage to store. Forever. Because let's face it, are you going to throw THAT out? No way! That comes in handy when you've got to move STUFF around! Stacks of bins, for instance!

Then you realize you need a ladder for changing light bulbs, reaching shelves, etc. So you buy a 6 foot ladder. But sometimes you just need to step up a couple of steps to reach a shelf, and you don't want to have to keep going out to the garage every time to get the 6 ft ladder. So you buy a little 3-ft step-ladder to keep in the house. Wal-Mart has them for about 30 bucks, so you get two - one for the kitchen for the upper cabinets, and one for upstairs for closets. Ah, but then you move to a new house that has high ceilings. Now the old 6 ft ladder is not quite tall enough to reach the light bulbs, so you buy a 10 ft ladder. Ah, but then you need an OUTSIDE ladder that will reach the roof to do repairs, or just clean the gutters, or whatever, so you get a 20 ft extension ladder for that.
Now you have 5 ladders – enough to start a window-washing company.
But are you going to throw any of them out? Nooooooo. Because they all have their separate purposes. The inside one isn't tall enough to work outside. The outside one doesn’t fit inside, the 10 ft doesn’t fit in closets, the 6 ft doesn’t reach light bulbs. You need them all – just make some more room!

Then maybe you pick up an air compressor along the way. I got one recently to spray guitar finishes with. I'm still putzing around trying to get the perfect finish on a neck for a guitar I am building. When I am finally finished with that, do I throw that out? Do I sell this stuff at a big loss, only to have to buy it again later whenever I need it? Of course not – I stuck it in the garage, like a thousand other things.
I needed a table saw at one point for some stuff I was building. Once in a blue moon I get it out, fire it up and do some work on it, but most of the time now, it just sits there taking up space. I had a complete woodworking shop years ago but gave it all away when I moved to Texas because it cost too much to move it (They charge by weight). Lathe, Radial Arm saw, Joiner/planers. drill press, these kinds of things weigh literally tons when taken together. So I gave away all that stuff once, but then over the 12 years since I’ve been here, slowly, piece by piece, I have needed this or that now and then, and so I have collected some tool STUFF again – though not nearly what I once had.

And that's just how it goes. You buy software that has reference books that come along with it. Do you throw them away to save on shelf space? Nope, you chuck them on the shelf right beside the other software reference books that you never read. Because - well, what if you need to look something up, right?
I haven't done Visual Basic or Visual C++ programming in about 7 years, but am I going to throw away all the reference books? noooooooope. I might need to do that again someday..... Yep. sure I will....

Then there are clothes. Everybody has clothes, right?
My weight fluctuates up and down about 25 lbs. So I don't feel like throwing away the old clothes, because no doubt I will again be at the appropriate weight to wear that again. And I'm not about to buy all new clothes again. (I am a regular heterosexual male, so I only buy clothes when I need to. Shopping for clothes is not an entertaining pastime for me)
But women are worse. Much worse. My wife has clothes from when she was a teenager. And shoes. How many shoes does one woman need? Sex In The City did people a huge disfavor by condoning and even trying to explain and legitimize the wanton disregard for common sense about shoes. Luckily, my wife is not prone to buying $400 designer pumps, but still she has a collection of footwear that stretches back to the Egyptian Old Kingdom.

And then there is the kitchen. Consider Tupperware. Let's say you get some as a gift - do you throw away the old stuff? Nope, this stuff lasts forever, and you can always find use for it at some point, right?. So the collection grows and expands and overflows the cupboards you set aside for it. Who throws away old silverware? Old plates, old cups? Only those sensible people we hear about, but don't actually know. You get new STUFF, but you don’t really throw away the old STUFF. Do you.

Maybe we should all just cart all our STUFF out onto the front lawn, pile it up as high as it goes, and then it will be easier to look down the street and see whose yard-pyramid is higher.

But is that really what this is about? No, it’s not. This is not about some deliberate race to accumulate more STUFF than the next guy. This is about how STUFF seems to accumulate DESPITE your intentions, just based upon the accumulated collection of things we needed at one point, but didn’t part with later.

So this is not about wealth. I’m not talking about fancy yachts, or rare paintings by Picasso, or diamonds, or a collection of classic Bugatti sports cars or anything. I’m talking about a $399 canoe, and a 9 year old van used for family road trip vacations. An extra old lawnmower, that just needs a tuneup. An old fridge. An old ladder or 3. Some extra paint left over that you might need for touch-ups someday. In every color that you have anywhere inside and outside the house. Some extra flooring tiles for the same reason. The wall paintings and prints that fit on the walls of the last house, but don’t fit on the walls of this house – but MIGHT fit on the walls of the next house…. Because you KNOW you’re going to move again someday…

And then there is the stuff that we actually collect on purpose. Instead of renting movies, I decided to buy DVD’s. Once you start, you can’t stop. You buy one and it sits on the shelf beside the DVD player. You watch it a couple times, then you think you need a couple more. You see them a couple times, and you need a few more. People come over to visit, and you want to show them a movie, but you need a few more to select from. You go to the video shop, and you see new movies that you missed seeing at the theaters, and old ones you want to see again, but never come on TV. You start a collection. Every week or two you drop by and there are a few more that appeal to you. Your collection is at 100 in no time. Now you start to pick up speed. Now you are actually working on a ‘collection’
By the time I woke up from this trance-like daze of consumer-hypnosis that lasted about 14 years, I had collected over 2000 movies.

Then there are the guitars. Well, playing guitar is my passion, and I’ve been playing for 40 years and collecting guitars for almost that long, so by now there are 22 instruments on the wall in the recording studio if you count guitars, basses, mandolin, and ukeles. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention there is a recording studio there, too? Yeah. Okay, this does reach beyond the normal stuff that most people have, but still – everyone has SOME hobby, right? The stamp collection, the butterfly collection? Model trains? Guns? Antique war medals? Motorcycles? Cabbage Patch dolls? Something?

It’s also sports equipment. Hockey equipment, skis, surfboard maybe?, ice skates, roller skates, bicycles, exercise equipment, the treadmill, the bowflex, the ab-lounge, football gear, baseball equipment, fishing stuff, golf clubs. What about your old camping gear with tents, sleeping bags, coleman stove, propane lamp, etc. The barbeque. Lawn furniture. The list just keeps growing.

And then, in the mail, you start getting offers for extended warranties for all your STUFF. You have a fridge don’t you? Well you don’t want it to fail and have to pay hundreds of dollars to fix it and lose all the food, right? So don’t you need an extended warranty to cover it? What about the freezer in the garage? You need one for that too, right? And the oven, and the microwave oven, and the stove, the dishwasher, the garbage disposal, the water softener, the water filtration system, the furnaces, the air conditioners, the lawnmowers, the toaster-oven, and on and on and on…..

We have to maintain all this stuff. But it’s not necessarily eclectic stuff. For the most part, this is all just the regular day-to-day stuff that we all have and get and use, and have to deal with. And over the years it builds up until one day you move – then you truly realize just how much STUFF you have accumulated and packed away into all those corners and shelves.

When it's time to move, You carefully pack the STUFF you need to keep and excise away all the old junk that you think you can part with, and yet you STILL shake your head in amazement as the movers keep calling for another truck as they fill the last one, until you have 5 full big moving vans parked on the street in front of your house, and a team of 10 professional movers working quickly and efficiently to get the job done in only 2 days. Instead of 3.

You still shake your head as you get into your car (also filled with STUFF you didn’t trust the movers to move safely) and follow behind what appears to be a large-sized trade caravan of trucks worthy of the entourage of King Farouk to the next house, where you will somehow try to find corners and shelves and crevices to once again store all this STUFF.

Well, it could be worse. You could be trying to get along WITHOUT all your STUFF!

But maybe, just maybe – you should try. After all, having all this STUFF around you creates a sort of tax upon your soul. If you don’t pack light, you can’t move around quickly. What if you got called off to Brazil on short notice? What would you do with all your STUFF? You are loaded down, held back. Encumbered by STUFF around your knees.
Think about the negative side of what having stuff means.
You have to shop for it, buy it, pay for it, finance it, take it home, set it up, use it, break it, fix it, maintain it, store it, find it when you need it again, or replace it if you can't find it or fix it. You insure it, protect and defend it, - and then in the end, dispose of it when you’re done with it. There is responsibility that goes along with having STUFF, and when you have a lot of STUFF, you have a lot of responsibility. If you have too much of it, then all this responsibility and worry can suck all the fun out of life. It can make you materially rich, but spiritually and emotionally poor.

I had a nightmare recently where I was moving, and we were driving along in the huge moving truck. As we came to a stop light in a busy downtown intersection, I asked the mover if the estimate had changed and if we were still going to be under the $4,000 that was quoted for the move. He laughed and said “You must be kidding! With this load? You’ll be lucky if it’s only $12,000 by the time we finish unloading at the new house. I realized that I didn’t have the money to pay that much, and I made the mistake of telling him so rigtht then. So he immediately stopped the truck and the movers unloaded all my stuff right there on the sidewalk. It made a huge, long line of belongings that stretched all the way down the sidewalk to the corner, and then around the corner out of sight. I was left stranded there with it all. There was no way to pick it up and take it anywhere. I couldn't even leave to go find a phone to call for someone to come and help because I didn't want to abandon all my STUFF.
Then, while I was trying to think of how to solve this problem, somebody picked up a TV at one end and started to walk off with it. I yelled, “Hey! Put that down!” and ran after him. But immediately, someone else started picking up stuff at the other end and running off with it. So I ran after them, only to see another guy running across the street carrying two of my guitars, so I yelled and chased after him, and fought with him to get those guitars back, and by then people had started descending on my lifetime stockpile of goodies like a flock of vultures on a dead elephant. It was like discovering buried treasure for them and they were fighting over the good pieces. I was helpless to protect it all. I had too much stuff to defend. I couldn’t be at both ends fighting people off, and soon I was just like one of the people in the crowd trying to get a piece here and there. It was a horrible nightmare. I think my subconscious was trying to tell me something. It's time to simplify my life.

Our STUFF is more than just the necessities for living. It is both the symbols of our successes – and the debris of our lives. It's the snail trail we leave behind us as we make our way through life. And as you get older, it is like the debris left on the beach after the tide washes back out - it shows the high water mark of where things once were.

Maybe it would be good to try to live our lives WITHOUT accumulating so much STUFF. Maybe it is much wiser to NOT buy all the STUFF in the first place, then when you need it, just go next door and borrow it from your neighbor. Use his STUFF. Let HIM stay up at night worrying about it.

But hey - that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.


At 9/01/2006 2:53 PM, Anonymous lauren said...

Me thinks Val needs to go on the tv show Clean Sweep lol. ;)

At 9/01/2006 7:25 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Ahhhh, but how to decide what to clean sweep away..... That's the trick!

Actually, if my daughter gets her own house when she finishes college, maybe I'll give HER a bunch of stuff. That way, it helps her out, because she won't have much stuff yet, and it allows me to clear out a bit, and I can still get it from her occasionally if I need it again.

Maybe that's the answer - another household, that's still in the family!

At 9/01/2006 11:48 PM, Blogger Ptelea said...

I hope this article inspires me to get rid of some of my STUFF. I love the opening photograph - this is what I think it would look like if I rented a dumpster when I really get ready to get rid of STUFF!

By the way, you have been book tagged

At 9/05/2006 1:49 PM, Anonymous lauren said...

I actually tossed a bunch of stuff last week. I cleaned out under my bed entirely. Now the cat really loves to go under there and relax cause she has so much room. I got rid of a bunch of clothing in the spring and have been again. There's a place to donate clothing just a few blocks from my place so it makes it easy.

At 9/05/2006 5:25 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

It's good to keep cleaning as much as possible. That might help you later on. Learn to live with less STUFF around your legs.



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