It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”
We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?
Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).
There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?
I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.
Last week, I saw a guy wheeling a couch down a sidewalk over near SE Woodstock. He had the full size living room couch balanced on an office chair on wheels, and was pushing the makeshift vehicle along the sidewalk, away from a garage sale, a clear sign summer is in the offing in Portland. I mentioned the couch on wheels to Susan, and she said let’s set sail for the new garage sale season come Saturday morning, foraging afield, stopping whim-whamfully, burying our treasure in the back of our little wagon. Yes, I added, and thence to the basement to add to our pile of previously purchased garage sale items that we will no doubt put out in our own garage sale later this summer. There you go again with the negative vibes, Moriarty, she replied, but come Saturday morning, off we jibed, cutting a course from Mt Tabor zigzagging northwest through uncharted garage sale waters.
Never mind, for the moment, why we keep stuff; why do we acquire the stuff to begin with? But what did we acquire on our Saturday garage sailing adventure?
Our first disembarkment came just a few blocks out of harbor. We looked at an ironing board (does anyone iron anymore? I asked Susan). We looked at a large, thick piece of glass and considered it for a table top. There was a DVD player for sale, a few books, and a treasure trove of old, vinyl albums, out of which I picked, for 50 cents, a Peggy Lee with George Shearing recording. I would have brought home a few more old, folk albums I saw, but most of them looked like they had served as scratching pads for a family of catastrophic cats. While I was thumbing through the albums, Susan picked out a shoe tree for her closet, and I wondered if this was a portent of an organized summer. Our garage sale hosts were themselves disembarking for adventures elsewhere, pulling up anchor, moving.
We stopped at a church rummage sale over on Burnside. Susan picked out a tiny, wire jeweled Christmas tree, though Christmas seems an ocean away to me. Things were half off at the church sale, and I showed Susan a lemonade sign leaning against a rail outside the vestibule. We could hang it somewhere, I said, assuring her I had no immediate plans to sell lemonade. The sign was marked $2.50, so we got it for $1.25, and Susan said churches often have the best garage sales.
But even half price was no match for Susan’s find at our next stop, an old, maple director’s chair at a garage sale off of Stark – in the free box pile. It had no seat nor back, and was missing the dowels that hold the seat fabric under the arms. If you can find any logic to buying a lemonade sign at half price, you can understand having to lug home the priceless, broken director’s chair. But on the way home we stopped by a specialty store where we got a director’s chair seat and back fabric replacement kit, on sale for three bucks. We were in favorable trade winds.
We stopped here and there, browsing more than buying, listening to a seller’s story here, a buyer’s tale there. Then we landed at the most enjoyable sale of the day, where three ladies joyfully called our attention toward multiple kitchenware items, a mirror, homemade stuffed toy animals, blankets and quilts, dishes, knickknacks, tools – these and more sundries arranged neatly on tables and blankets and leaning against a tree in the front yard. And I made my third purchase of the day. For 50 cents, I bought a little Singer box of sewing machine parts, but I got it for the tiny, specialized screwdrivers it contained.
I’m the kind of garage sailor who vows every voyage is his last, though it’s not the long run on the open sea I want, either, instead of tacking through neighborhoods, but I’ll probably sail through the summer stopping at garage sales if I see books, albums, tools, or guitars. The sailor on land wants to walk. And if I find myself some distance from the mother ship wanting to haul a garage sale item home, I can always ask if they happen to have any office chairs on wheels for sale. The garage sale offers a unique barometer of local economic conditions, windows of interest into local communities, and the stories one hears surely fill part of the void left by the disappearance of newspapers. In any case, there’s always the chance of the odd lemonade sign showing up.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said, which is to say, most guys – their binders are empty. Bukowski explains, over at Letters of Note: the drone ant has sacrificed his life for a 401Kafkaesque letter from his Man-auger: “Sorry mate, we’ve a cutback comin’ down the line.” Bukowski lights out for the territory, not ahead of all the rest, like Huck did, but behind, yet still grateful for the chance, as Thoreau put it, “…to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
But to live deliberately, or deliberately meanly, as Bukowski did, requires at least some dough, as Bukowski acknowledges in his letter of thanks to John Martin, his publisher and patron. How much dough? $100 a month, for life, as long as he kept writing, according to the documentary Born Into This (brief review here; not recommended for the squeamish). How much did Buk need to sustain his values? What would he have done differently with $1,000 per month, or $10,000? More dough, more beer? Thoreau also found no sense in saving for a doubtful future.
“The man who goes alone can start today,” said Thoreau. In any amount, against this going alone, we find E. O. Wilson continuing to surprise us: “‘Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue,’ he writes in one of the book’s bluntest passages. ‘Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature'” (Susanna Rustin, Guardian interview, 17 Aug 2012). Which angel carries cash? Thoreau thought he “was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly.”
Meanwhile, over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan, who’d be the world’s richest blogger if posts were dollars, points us, in a post titled “What’s the Matter with Money?,” to an argument proposing to assuage any Thoreau induced guilt we might be feeling over our purchased stuff. “Buyology,” by Jerry DeNuccio, suggests money is good because when we buy stuff we sustain the consumer colony. The consumer is thus one of the “better angels of our nature.” But do we really want to be ants? And isn’t most of our money spent on things we don’t really want? I’m not sure what audience needs an argument in favor of money. It can’t be the poor, who know only too well the value of money and what it might buy (food and good teeth to eat it, clean clothing and a private place to dress, health care not to be confused with drugs, not to mention Ishmael’s bed and table), but Thoreau is clear about his audience: “Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students,” whose meagre earnings don’t necessarily go for cool stuff: “Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants.” Cynics are fond of finding Thoreau contradicting himself, and he’s often laureled a hero of hypocrisy. It’s become a sixth way added to Walter Harding’s “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” But in no place do we find Thoreau at odds with the value of furniture, a hearth, or companionship. He even kept three chairs for society. But Thoreau did not consider himself poor, as his conversation with John Field, who “was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain,” in the “Baker Farm” chapter of Walden, makes clear. Thoreau simply wanted to live on less stuff. For Thoreau, less is more to the max.
In any case, Thoreau did not ignore economy, his own or his society’s. The first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” is roughly a quarter of the book, and readers often find tedious pages in Thoreau’s accounting. This is part of our economy, too, according to Thoreau, ants building a railroad: “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it…He should have gone up garret at once. ‘What!’ exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, ‘is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.'”
No one doubts the importance of money and stuff, but money is a fifth column to Thoreau’s four necessaries of life (“Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel”). The question is, “How much is enough? and How do I know what I want?” as Bill McKibben puts it in his introduction to the Beacon Press Walden (1997). For Thoreau, “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” More, the problem with money isn’t that it buys stuff; the problem with money is that its superfluity leads to a superfutility, as its surplus grows into a power that dictates what others should do with their money, or what they should do for their money, or what should become of them for a lack of money. And nowhere is this more evident than in the status of women, all around the world, and if “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” what’s a woman to do who must learn to live with one of these desperadoes?
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” Thoreau concluded.
“Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings, –
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows” (Thoreau’s poem in the “Economy” chapter of Walden).
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.