Thursday, November 26, 2015

Too Much Stuff

The attic light is dim, the plank flooring uncertain, and everything’s covered with a thin layer of black, dry rot wood dust filtered down from the 130 year old roof structure. In a stack of photocopier paper boxes I lifted yet another lid to reveal English and woodworking textbooks from the early 1980s and a couple of my ex-wife’s high school yearbooks. I put the yearbooks in the save pile and the rest in a trash bag. That box, along with others had been carried to the attic 20 years ago this past fall and never opened again.

The ‘90s were apparently a hopeful time, a time when we thought we’d need that box of books, intended to refinish that old piece of furniture, intended to sort all the children’s clothing and share it with neighbors and Goodwill. Somebody told me once the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cleaning out all this shit is starting to feel like hell.
View of the newly organized Cherry St. attic. 

I text my ex-wife to say I’ll be leaving a couple more boxes on her front porch. “More baby clothing?” she asks, sarcastically. “Yes,” I sheepishly reply. “I just don’t feel competent judging keepsakes from throwaways.”

I’d already carried down a 30-year collection of Old House Journal magazines, my hard-copy archive before online databases made it pointless, those boxes of children’s clothing my 20-something kids wore 20-something years ago, worn luggage with broken zippers, two large trash bags filled with plush stuffed animals my sisters and parents had lavished my daughter with – sent up here when she outgrew them, a bin of ice cycle lights that once seemed a good idea on the front porch, framed drawings I bought my grandmother in Paris 30 years ago that came back to me after she died, and inexplicably, a trash bag filled with dirty, worn out tennis shoes. They have the wear marks of a skate boarder. I texted a photo of the shoes to my middle son, Jack in Denver. “Oh, yeah, I had a plan for those, once.”

I'm just scratching the surface of what's been packed into this Cherry Street house.

All of this caps two years of cleaning out the bedrooms and closets of my grown children, the garage, endless cabinets, vanities and drawers filled with endless boxes and handfuls of crap, the garage attic, and, oh yeah, the basement. Aargh! I've spent hundred of dollars boxing and shipping things to the kids in Denver and Japan. Every time I think I’ve got it all cleaned out, I open another cabinet and find yet more stuff that was saved years ago and is utterly useless or unneeded now.

I have a theory about stuff in storage: Our need to save things is bound only by our ability to do so.  It’s often said that gold fish will grow to fill the size bowl they live in – in a tiny bowl, they stay tiny, in a big tank, they grow bigger. Storage space and the stuff that fills it works the same way.

I accelerated the clearing out to prepare for my new wife, Andrea and step-kids to move in. But preparing her River Road house for sale included packing another entire house of personal belongings, cleaning out an attic, a basement, a 30 x 60 pole barn, and a 2-car garage-sized artist studio. 

Those two sentences are short, but it took months.

This year included garage sales, a filled 20-yard dumpster, Facebook garage sales, endless trips to Goodwill, shit given to neighbors and friends, a steady flow of stuff carelessly thrown into the blue trash bins behind the Cherry Street garage, and a couple days before the closing of Andrea’s house, a final desperate call to a contractor to haul a trailer full of stuff to my garage and a second trailer full to a landfill. And, oh yeah, all the things I put on the curb with a sign that said, "Free."

At least nobody took the sign and left the stuff. That's actually happened to me before. After all, the sign did say, "Free."

Along the way I’ve been reminded of something an Englishman said to me years ago: “You American’s buy cheap shit at Wal-Mart, then put it in a garage sale a year later, then go to Wal-Mart and buy more cheap shit. You Yanks are really into ‘THINGS,'” he sneered, jabbing air-quote fingers like pokes in the eyes.

The recently cleaned out garage is full again.
More hard choices.
I was insulted at the time, but the dude was 100% right.

It’s not just that we’ve bought and saved too much shit. We’ve been trying to consolidate two households into one. By the time we closed Andrea's River Road house sale earlier this month, the Cherry Street garage was filled to the gills as was a 14’ x 14’ storage unit. The cleaned out attic and basement, refilled with new stuff.

We set aside some nice rugs from our combined houses, a nearly new love seat, lamps, TVs, coffee tables and patio furniture for our sons in Denver. We loaded it all up last Wednesday in a small U-Haul and drove 1,100 miles to Colorado. I woke Friday morning in cold, snow-piled Colby, Kansas and looked out the motel window at our U-Haul full of the possessions we were now dragging across the country, pondering all this . . . STUFF!

Having been in Japan just a month ago, I’m still considering the mammoth gulf between America and other nations and our status as the world’s master consumers and hoarders. I keep waiting for the planet to start wobbling and thumping like an imbalanced car tire, all from the amassed weight of the United States.

But perhaps the next generation will be better at this than mine. As I was texting photos of things that could be loaded on the truck to Denver, Jack replied at some point, “Will it hurt your feelings if we don’t want something you’re bringing?”

Smart boy. But I should have saved and brought him that damn bag of tennis shoes and hauled them to his attic.

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