Caroline Knapp’s short article with a long title, “Why We Keep Stuff: If You Want to Understand People, Take a Look at What They Hang On To,” is stuffed with stuff. The word stuff appears 28 times in the three page, short essay. The topic turns on a reflection, moving from funny to serious: yes, we keep stuff we no longer need or can no longer use, but to rid ourselves of our old, useless and cumbersome stuff, is “to say goodbye to a person I used to be.” An example used to illustrate stuff she’ll never be able to use again is her metaphorical pair of jeans: “…tiny, cigarette-legged jeans….” A cigarette is stuffed with tobacco, the paper tight and long and slender, skinny. Cigarettes are lethal, as might be the effort required, as one grows older, and fatter, to stuff oneself into one’s youthful jeans. The metaphorical jeans in my closet hang in the form of my Navy flight jacket. No, I wasn’t a pilot: in the early 70s, I traded my Army field jacket for the flight jacket with a ship’s supply sergeant. I wore it for years, and I remember when I stopped wearing it, a few years after I got a desk job. “I grow old … I grow old …,” Prufrock said, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” I purchased the guitar in the photo at the top of this paragraph about 40 years ago, for $25. I played it until I first started taking classical lessons, around 1980, but set it aside when I got a new Takamine (C132S, built in 1977 – I bought it used). The much cheaper Orlando, the guitar in the photo, is now a take-to-the-beach guitar, but otherwise does not get played, but it goes with the jacket, which is to say, I’m not ready to get rid of either one. According to Knapp, that should help you understand me.
I’m not sure why we keep stuff we no longer need or can no longer use. In Portland, maybe we’re just not sure what color cart it’s supposed to go into. Knapp’s argument contains a basic assumption of utilitarian value, while shows like “Antiques Roadshow” have us all hoping that our Maltese falcon is the real deal. But much of what we keep would seem to have little to do with commensurate monetary value. What should we keep? Earlier this year, I was reading Thoreau’s “Walden” and Fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” The two transcendentalists, alike in so many ways, had opposing viewpoints when it came to what to keep, Thoreau arguing for simplicity, while Fuller never threw anything away. At the end of John Huston’s film “The Maltese Falcon,” when asked about the falcon, “It’s heavy; what is it?,” detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) says, “Stuff that dreams are made of.” The famous line from the film is not in Dashiell Hammett’s book. The line is adapted from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest“:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 146-163).
“Stuff, stuff, I am surrounded by stuff,” Knapp begins her essay “Why We Keep Stuff,” and I think: Books, books, I am surrounded by books. “Stuff I don’t need, stuff I don’t use,” Knapp goes on. Books I don’t need? Books I don’t read? I have let books go, in spite of what the place stuffed with books might look like, but have almost always come to regret their leaving. Still, of all the stuff my place is stuffed with, the books are probably the stuffiest, so why do I keep them, the ones I’ll probably never even pull down off the shelves again, let alone read? Could it be the books are stuffed with secrets?
All this talk about stuff has me hungry. My stuffed thoughts wander down to my stomach. I’m thinking now of stuffed foods: for breakfast, pigs in a blanket; for lunch, a potato stuffed with last night’s leftover chili; for supper, stuffed cabbage rolls rolling in tomato sauce; for dinner, bell peppers stuffed with spanish rice mixed with jalapeno, garlic, and basil; and for snacks, grape leaves stuffed with crushed raspberries and yogurt.
What else do we stuff? Sock drawers, the dishwasher, the washing machine, trash bags and garbage cans, purses and wallets and pockets, makeup kits, the car for the beach trip, the trunk and the glovebox, Christmas stockings. The environment accumulates the stuff of our detritus – the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, for example. But even if left alone, nature accumulates her own stuff.
But only we stuff time. What does time, unstuffed, feel like? “The trick,” Knapp concludes, “is to learn to manage stuff, the same way you learn to manage fears and feelings.” Yes, like time management, yet, “Throw away the lights, the definitions,” Wallace Stevens said, in “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” “And say of what you see in the dark…,” uncluttered with stuff, he might have added.
See Knapp’s The Merry Recluse, Counterpoint, 2004; “Why We Keep Stuff” was originally published in Boston Phoenix, June, 1991.