Way of the Packrat

When I return home — and it’s less and less often these days, despite the difference — I become aware of something awful, something that I otherwise try and blot out. That something is my genetic inability to throw something away. I know I have it, because I see it at home.

I know how it started. For many years we lived in the same home. I lived in that home for 16 years. In 1998 we packed up everything we had and moved to England. In 2000, we moved back with more stuff. We had an intra-house move in England, too, but that didn’t seem as important as the continental moves. Because we never quite put our stuff back in the proper place.

This all became obvious to me in 2008, when, after leaving my last job, I used some of my time off to start cleaning our basement. There were mysterious boxes down there, stuff labeled and re-labeled until no one quite knew what they contained. I ripped open about a dozen of them. I found many, many magazines, many items of clothing, and some proportion of them ruined by nine years of dampness. A proud collection of two years of “Q” magazines, melted and mildewed. Same for an old suit. There were great discoveries, like an old James Dobson book on the proper brutalization of childen. But the chief revelation was this: We had a lot of bullshit, and we had it on the theory that at some point, our aging bodies and maturing minds would return to it. We would use some part of our remaining time on earth to check out an old magazine article or an old book.

At the time, I had a revelation about how digital media had changed much of this. It’s the same revelation you had around 2002 or so. But it really got to me this time. Historical items, family items, are worth keeping. A blouse that you got as a gift, or an old drawing, or an old political sign — all keepers. That means that 90-odd percent of the stuff we had we could lose forever, and never care.

I thought of this again just now. I went out for a run before dinner, listening to my iPod, which I keep in a bright green case for protection and for visibility. Getting ready to settle in and read after we’d watched some movies (“Taken” and “Al Franken: God Spoke”) I realized that I had no fucking idea where it was. I had moved maybe 20 yards since I returned from the run, to a kitchen to a living room to a den to the bedroom. At some point, I absent-mindedly put my iPod down. But where? There were endless piles of clutter that could have obscured it underneath. It was dark. It was late. I couldn’t find it, nor did I want to waste too much time trying. And as I poked through one of the two rooms of the house rendered pretty much unusable thanks to piles of clothes and books and magazines and (for fuck’s sake) VHS tapes, I realized that this was symptomatic of a big problem. I had the urge then and there to just start piling old, ugly clothes into garbage bags and throwing them out.

I stopped. I realized that most people don’t stop. It’s obvious to them when it’s time to junk an old pair of boxers (one, that I can’t believe hadn’t been tossed, had an elastic waistband that broke in 2002 at the most recent). It’s not obvious to me/us.

Speaking only for myself, there are two reasons for this. One is misplaced environmentalism. I don’t like the idea of our crap building into a landfill somewhere. This is rather less ridiculous than my refusal to flush a toilet unless it’s been used for multiple excretions. (This has become an accidental advantage as people tour the house I rent, looking to buy it.) It’s still ridiculous. It’s responsible for a short hesitation that becomes an indefinite one.

The second reason is sentimentality. I have a terrific recall for event and place. I remember when and where I bought most every CD or DVD or book I own, and most items of clothing. I do pause before junking a shirt that came from a high street in Guildford, or a book received at Christmas back in 1997. My family has never taken many photos. The stuff is what we have, connections to place and time and one another.

I hate living like this. I have been kicked out of at least one house because of my messiness. I had a girlfriend whose last comments to me (give or take a few) were about how my room “smelled like dirty laundry.” It probably did. But I have a weak sense of smell, especially in winter, and I can’t tell that sort of thing. And I have trouble keeping all my clothes in order because my life, my room, are deluged with papers and books and movies.

It’s funny that I wrestle with this problem instead of trying to solve it. I have a friend, Erin Doland, who *wrote a fucking book* about uncluttering. I have a friend, Chris Chandler, who has one of the most extensive collections of video games on the planet, occupying an entire basement, and it’s better put together than any room of any house I’ve ever lived in.

One excuse I give myself is that I am constantly forced to move houses. Probably next year I’ll have to move houses within DC again. It’s not fun or rewarding to keep on buying organizing materials when I know they’ll clash at the next place. I have proven able to trash a few boxes of things every time I move.