Do we control our "stuff," or does it control us?

Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 06:03

One of the funniest bits I ever heard by the late comedian George Carlin was the one on “stuff,” the material possessions that we so dearly prize and covet. He talked about how we meticulously have our ‘stuff’ arranged and displayed in our homes, in hierarchical fashion, and how when we travel we take some of our ‘stuff’ with us, kind of “satellite” to our stuff, so that we have familiar surroundings and don’t get homesick for the main body of ‘stuff’ we keep at home.

I was driving through the car-clogged street during the neighborhood summer garage sale recently and thought about how ‘stuff’ influences our lives. I’m no one to talk. From floor to ceiling on both sides of our oversized garage are shelves completely filled with stuff. You know, those boxes of school stuff belonging to our daughter who is now married and moved away; the extra suitcases that we’re saving for our son, also moved away; old TV sets and computers; enough paint equipment to open up a small store; left over flooring and other materials from when our home was built.

But we do get two cars into the garage every night. I voyeuristically look into other people’s garages and only see ‘stuff,’ no room whatsoever for an automobile.

The TV programs that feature hoarders say it all. These folks are so in love with their ‘stuff ‘ that they allow it to occupy most of the space in their homes. And miraculously, they can remember each every piece of ‘stuff’ they own and when they acquired it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate garage sales. The most anyone wants to offer you for anything – a fishing reel that’s been used three times or portable radio, is a dollar. Perhaps for something new, in the package and never opened, like a steak knife set, they might give you $5, tops. I’m so embarrassed for people by how cheap they sometimes are, that I don’t bother holding the sales. I’d rather give it away or haul it to the dump.

I once proclaimed a rule of the house, but it only lasted a few months. The rule was that for every object brought into the house, one object would leave. My wife loves home improvement projects. Before I knew it, things like extra curtains, new bed spreads, fancy bed pillows and tile samples began to appear everywhere. I began to surreptitiously remove items from the garage to maintain the critical balance – but I soon found myself jettisoning valuable things, even extension cords and tools.

I’ve heard variations to the rule, but if you haven’t looked at or used something in about a year, it’s probably time to get rid of it. That doesn’t include all of the things that you’re keeping for future grandchildren—the quilts, the small cradle, the rocking horse built by grandfather, the dolls your daughter once owned. If it weren’t for a dry crawl space and a storage container we rent in Eagle River, our garage would also become a storage unit and our cars would be parked on the driveway..

My lovely wife, of course, counters with the fact I have a ton of outdoor gear in the garage. I try to confine it to one area but it too has a way of spreading to other shelves.

I think a healthy approach to ‘stuff’ is to have a cleansing, or culling, every so often. When you eliminate some items, those you keep achieve a higher status and are more valued. When you have two or three of the same thing, it’s probably okay to keep a spare, but why three?

Recently I’ve been reorganizing one of the top shelves in the garage in anticipation of what my wife will bring home from the summer garage sales. It’s the only way to maintain some control of the stuff inflow, if that’s humanly possible.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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