Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rethinking the Tyranny of Objects

It's really for sale!
I once read -- let's blame it on Jack Kerouac because it sounds like him -- that "A man should never own more than he can pack in a car."

No doubt fertilized by the number of articles I've been reading lately about minimalist housing -- we're talking houses of 200 to 300 square feet -- and by the $24,175 in windstorm damage to our home, I have come to the conclusion that I would like to shed myself of things, to enclose myself in a tighter, more easily maintainable space, there to linger with far fewer material objects requiring maintenance and repair. 

But then there is this: what do I do with pictures and keepsakes? A few are easy. I have a Swiss Army knife that I received for my 10th birthday. Pocket, of course. Then there is a cleat I purloined from my football shoes -- high-tops like the immortal Johnny U -- when I made finally made 3rd string varsity at Stephen F. Austin High School in El Paso, Texas.

Knick-knacks are easy. I'm not one much for decorative stuff. I prefer the minimalist Japanese decorating ethos. 

Then there the family portraits and pictures, especially the early 1900s studio portraits of my great-grandparents. Hmm, those two are too big for 200-square feet. Scan them into digital files, obviously, and then pass them on down the family line.

I do need space for a roll-in shower. A microwave. A small refrigerator. Books? Not especially. What's a Kindle for, after all? DVDs? NetFlix. Again transforming digitally into micro-space.

But I am a sentimentalist. Married to a collector of Raggedy Ann and Andy stuff, and other assorted Oh, how cute! objects to look at that justify the expense of housekeeping services. My wife is an accumulator. And I care not at all to discuss the psychological motivations that have one of us lusting after as little-as-possible and the other who delights in catalogs full of dust-catchers.

We're attempting to sell on house and buy another, one closer to her work. A few days ago, amidst the hammering and the nail-guns and the questions and the dirty boots in-and-out, I said, "Let's buy an old fashioned cottage and gut it. Tear out every wall except for those around the bathroom. Live in one room. We could put the bed behind a short glass-brick divider and the kitchen behind another divider, and then make a loft bedroom for the kid. Six hundred square feet of living space would force us to de-junk our lives."

She was less than enthusiastic.  

Do material objects oppress? Constrain? Yes. More costs in time, energy, and emotion.

As the ol' saying goes, "A yacht is a hole in the water where a rich man throws his money." 

Yes, there is the $24,000 loss, mostly reimbursed by insurance but also blowing two weeks of time out of my life. There is the $150 computer chip for the van. A window motor for the Thunderbird. A rebuilt wiper system for the Ranchero. And don't forget $75 to mow the lawn. (Natural landscaping, anyone?) 

Frank Lloyd Wright said it succinctly. "Many wealthy people are little more than janitors to their possessions."

I am far from wealthy. I am, however, a "janitor for my possessions."

1 comment:

Nikki Hootman said...

I used to pack everything I owned in a truck. I literally had a Ford Ranger with a camper shell, and I moved several times a year. Of course that was in my college days. After that I lived for an entire year out of a suitcase, in China.

Thennnnn I got married and had kids. Funny how that changes things! I think it's nice to live a pared-down life, but what about economies of scale? It's nice to have a huge garage where I can store odds and ends so that when I need to fix/make/get something, I can go out and rummage around and cobble together what I need. After all, if I didn't have all those tools, I'd never be able to fix stuff myself.

Of course that in itself can trigger my hording impulse, because once you start saving stuff, what do you throw away? And then I turn into my grandfather, a depression-era man who filled his garage with neatly organized rows of coffee cans containing every last scrap of spare wires, used nails, and screws.