Does It Mean Anything?

6 09 2010

Having too many things makes me uncomfortable. I grew up with depression-era parents and grandparents who saved rubber bands and salvaged all sorts of things that “we might need someday”. Just as they were uncomfortable with getting rid of things, I really can’t stand having all that stuff clogging the space around me. Which is not to say that I don’t hang on to that Telluride Bluegrass Festival beer cup or last year’s running shoes, but just that they make me vaguely uncomfortable and I’ll eventually have to empty shelves and closets to give myself a little breathing room.

In today’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker writes about why we value and hold on to the things we do. In a nutshell, objects that have a story – the coffee mug that I used at my first job out of college – also have value. As a matter of fact, if you take that item to the second hand store and tell customers the back story, they will also value that old chipped mug more highly, even though the back story is not their own and the mug is ugly. So what does this mean?  What does it mean?!?

My neighbors across the street had a garage sale just yesterday, which always gets me to thinking about why people are so driven to own more stuff. This is true: If you advertise your garage sale in the local classifieds, people will show up at the break of dawn to pay $2.00 for three mismatched dinner plates. And even though fear of economic collapse has slowed the average American consumer, we still go to WalMart in droves to buy more plastic kiddie pools and wobbly barbeque grills. So if you open your closets or really take a look at all the cast-offs heaped in your garage, don’t you wonder why you bought all that stuff? Doesn’t it make you just a little queasy? Were you temporarily possessed? Did you think that extra set of wine glasses was really going to make you feel better? Or you wished it would, but when you got them home you wanted to go back and get that wonderful stock pot that you decided against at the store?

What if, as you were shopping online for those fantastic outdoor lounge chairs that tip back in an extraordinarily comfy way, you could dredge up fond memories of last summer’s cook-outs with your pals on the patio furniture you already own? If you did that, would you decide that you really don’t need new ones because the old ones bring back too many happy memories? What would happen if you could do that every time you’re tempted to collect more stuff? Would you wind up living with two bedrooms instead of three? Have a smaller yard? An older car? A trip to Spain instead of a new sofa?

OK, OK, I know it all sounds self-righteous, but what is it that we’re really looking for with all of that stuff?




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