Stuff

I am now in the second day of watching paint dry. We are living between boxes, near ladders, over drop cloths. We walk on dusty, crusty things. What I need, I carry in large pockets in my shorts. If I need anything else, it’s easier to go out and buy it rather than find which contains it.  Some of our stuff is still in chests of drawers, which have been shoved up against chairs, tables, plants and more boxes. Finding a handkerchief requires effort.

We were led to believe we could leave the kitchen cabinets as they were. Yesterday we were told that they had to be emptied because they had to be sanded before being painted. Eight hours and thirty-five boxes later…

George Carlin’s famous “Stuff” routine goes through my head. It is a brilliant example of comedic art. For those who don’t know this brilliant piece of comedic art, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac

I told my wife she could put what she didn’t want in a box, and I’d take it to the local used clothing store. She filled the box. I picked it up–one of thirty-five I had to lift and put somewhere that wasn’t near a wall or a door. What was inside clinked and clunked spitefully–our stuff doesn’t like being rejected anymore than we do.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much money I’d have, or how much freedom, if I hadn’t acquired so much. When I was an adolescent and I went to college, you could fit most of my possessions into a car–my father’s Cadillac, which broke down on the eight hour interstate highway trip. I remember his skepticism at the fact that half of my stuff was music: vinyl records and black boxes adorned with little lights, knobs and gauges.

My father did a few years as a traveling salesman before he practiced law. He loved the job and, from what I hear, was a one-suitcase kind of guy.

I remember him looking at all my audio gear. My generation equated access to “our” music with taste and personal freedom.

What’s wrong with a radio, my father wanted to know.

On my last move, I needed a truck. Thanks to dubious improvements in technology, my audio stuff had been reduced to a speakers, a computer, an Ipod and several boxes of CDs. My books comprised about 80 percent of the truck and no one asked me “what’s wrong with a library” because writers accumulate books and some of those books had my name on them. Other boxes contained copies of articles that I’d published.

But the majority of the books I had to put in boxes, carry to the truck, and then carry off the truck, had not been read yet. I had acquired them at different times in my life, for different reasons, and I intended to read them, sooner and later, even if the pages of the paperbacks were growing brown.

I threw out my back while hauling the books out of the truck. How is that boxes you load into a vehicle are far heavier when you take them out? I struggled to stack them into a geometric mountain in the garage, where they became a dark, brooding minimalist sculpture until we went to Ikea and bought Billy shelves. A piece of furniture named after me! What could be more fun?

As anyone who has bought anything at Ikea soon learns, putting that austerely cool, highly designed stuff together is not always fun. What looked so cool in the store, when you slide it all out of the box, what appears to be Lego for adults turns out to be a jumble of cardboard, particle-board, wooden pegs and Allen wrench screws that do not inspire confidence.

Ahh, but there are printed instructions! You lay out all the parts and you panic because there’s a part that you MUST have that you don’t, and you really don’t want to go back to the store and join the long line of indignant, exasperated people (most of whom are secretly embarrassed that they couldn’t put the damned stuff together) that you passed on the way out. Then you squint for a third time at the illustrations and find this teensy thing stuck in a corner of the plastic parts bag. Could THIS be it?

So you put a screw into a hole and give it a twist with your Allen wrench until, about five or six steps in, you discover you put it the section together backwards. Instead of seeing smooth, cool, modernist geometry fitting seamlessly, you’re glaring at mottled brownish-gray backside of the particleboard. All those screws that were intended to go in once, have to come out and go in again.

It takes you a lot longer than you thought, and you hope that nobody ever sees the back of it, but, at least, you have a place for your stuff.

Until you decide to move again, or fix up the house a little bit. That’s when you notice that every item you pull off a shelf, or take out of a cabinet–especially the things you forgot you owned–connects to a narrative. Where were you when you found this? Did it respond to a need? Was it souvenir of an adventure? Did you pay full price when you bought it, or did you get a bargain?

Among the items from our kitchen that went into boxes were two Orval glasses, from the days when drinking Belgian, craft or delightfully strange beer was interesting, stimulating and fun.

Perhaps lighting up memory neurons in the attic of our brains is why people horde things. I know it can be a sickness. I never saved copies of letters I wrote. I’ve thrown away most clippings and copies of my journalism. Manuscripts of novels and most early misfires are also gone.

I saved clothing because I wanted to wear it out. I saved music because music took me to other worlds. I saved books because books took me places before music did.

And, during that long part of my life when I was nearly broke all the time, I discovered all these cheap coffee mugs at Goodwill and Salvation Army. When that was comfortably behind me, my wife bought the Starbucks Quebec City coffee mug during our trip north to celebrate my 60th birthday. That old hammered aluminum pot came from my college days: the guy that owned the group house I was living in was going to throw it away. I scrubbed it out and have cooked with it ever since.

It all had to go into boxes. My wife strained her shoulders and I had a better work-out than I would have had at the gym carrying all those boxes up to a room, where I assembled another minimalist mountain.

On the way downstairs, our dog at my heels, her eyes asking me why we had to mess up a perfectly good house, I thought about Bishop Berkeley’s axiom, which everybody gets in Intro Philosophy: esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. How we understand our possessions makes them more than just stuff to haul up and down the stairs in a box.

How often do we think of the stuff below us, that supports our world? What about the stuff above that extends so far that we would never reach an end?
Just by perceiving it, our stuff can become magical talismans. And, thanks to even more sneaky technological developments, we don’t have to put some of it in boxes anymore.  Our digital acquisitions can go into a data storage center.
I wonder, though, if our seemingly limitless Internet will finally develop dark alleys, slums, spots of corrosion and industrial wear and tear? Will there be a cost for so much free stored stuff?

Music comes from up from below, from a digital music source that, presumably, is making it easier for human beings to change the color of our walls.

And the paint continues to dry.

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