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On being a pack rat

As anyone who has seen my office or my lab [1] knows, I accumulate way too much stuff. This weekend, I’m working on my home office [2] and our family room. I find myself frustrated about what I’ve accumulated, but also have seem to have a block against easily getting rid of stuff. I wonder if writing an essay will help me think through these issues?

I seem to accumulate stuff for a variety of reasons. Some stuff I accumulate because I think it will be useful someday, and it seems to be a bargain. This stuff includes books for my scholarship, supplies for art projects, office supplies, and more. Some stuff I accumulate because I think others can use it, or because I worry that it will be discarded if I don’t gather it. I’ve grabbed books before Friends of Drake Library discards them [3]. I’ve grabbed things that the bookstore was throwing out during their move. (I currently have a bunch of plastic-coated wires in my car that I think someone could use for an art project.).

A lot of stuff I accumulate because I anticipate using it someday when I have free time [4]. That stuff includes books, board games, and music. I love to read and I love playing games with my kids, and so I accumulate. That would be fun to read. That would be awesome to play with my kids or maybe with my students. I’d like to listen to that. These stuff also includes not-quite-working things that I expect to eventually have time to fix.

I accumulate some stuff because it’s cool. Once again, the stuff includes books, music, and old games. It also includes figurines (like the big Underdog in my office and the Wild Things in my lab), old containers, and more.

There’s also the stuff I accumulated one way or another that keep for sentimental reasons; items from my kids, my mother, my father, and my childhood. So many things remind me of family, of my childhood, of my kids, and more. Throwing things away seems like throwing away memories.

I will admit that accumulating each kind of accumulation brings a bit of a rush, probably like the rush from any kind of addiction. And I think that rush also makes it hard to get rid of things. I know that I feel a great deal of anxiety whenever I’m called on to get rid of something. I know that some people feel freed by getting rid of stuff; I feel panicked. I also reflect back on things I’ve gotten rid of with regret: A signed Pogo book, the Star Wars Laserdiscs, the trunk in the attic that mom told me to toss, that I later discovered contained many of the things she’d written. Did I need any of those things? Not really. But having those kinds of things brings me joy.

So, how do I stop accumulating and how do I do better at discarding? Well, the things I’ve accumulated for future use are often hard to find when I need them, so I could just accept that I either need to organize the stuff or just not accumulate. The things I’ve accumulated for others I should give to those others. That will make some difference. I could prioritize books and try to figure out if I’ll ever read some of them, and get rid of those that I know that I won’t read. I’ve done a bit of that [5], but I could do more.

Michelle says that I should just take pictures of the things that I keep for sentimental reasons and then get rid of the things. But I don’t find that pictures have the same sentimental value. Maybe I could use my sentimentality to help me get rid of stuff; it’s hard to find the sentimental stuff amongst the clutter.

But it’s not easy to change. I’ll need to think about the first steps I can take. Maybe I should ask whether each thing is worth writing about, and if not, get rid of it. But writing about things, rather than people, seems particularly materialistic [6]. Maybe I’ll focus on the selfishness of ownership and see if that makes a change. We’ll see.

I should also acknowledge that having the resources to accumulate stuff and the space to store that stuff is a reflection of my privilege. I should think of ways to use my resources and privilege for better things.

I should think about the rush and the addiction to accumulating and find something else that gives me a similar rush. (Okay, there are lots of things that give a similar rush, including writing these essays and helping people. But it’s easier to accumulate.)

Did writing help? Not the first time through. A bit more when I revised the essay [7]. These are surprisingly complex things for me to think through. The rush of accumulation, the anxiety associated with getting rid of something, and the regret when I do probably have some complex psychological basis. Maybe I should seek out real help. However, we don’t have enough help for the students with real problems, so that would also be a waste of my privilege. I guess I need to reflect more about these issues [8].

Karla E. [9] says that I should focus on successes, rather than failures. So what I have I done well in getting rid of stuff? The DVDs were one example, probably one I should follow again. (I do have a bunch that I will either give to my brother-in-law, leave up for grabs in the CS commons, or donate to Friends of Drake Library.) I’ve gotten better at asking myself when I finish reading a book whether I’ll ever read it again. And when I say No, I’m pretty good at donating it to Friends of Drake Library. Sometimes, when students ask nicely for things [10], I’m happy to give them up [11]. Sometimes I can identify someone I know will like the things, and I give it to them. That’s probably the easiest way I know to get rid of something.

Perhaps what I really need to do is identify the times when I’m best at getting rid of stuff, and to work extra hard at getting rid of stuff during those times. Well, I’ll work on it for a few months, and see what I come up with before then. I may revisit these issues with another essay.

[1] Or even the desktop on my computer.

[2] Even less organized than my work office.

[3] I’m getting better at letting books go, but still need to work on it.

[4] Yeah, I do assume that I will have free time at some point. Maybe when I retire.

[5] One particularly successful attempt involved putting a set of DVDs in a box and promising that I’d get rid of any I didn’t watch in a year. I got rid of all those. But I still have too many left.

[6] Yes, I realize that my accumulation of stuff is also very materialistic.

[7] You can tell that I didn’t completely work through the issues because the essay is still jumbled. It’s just like reading a student essay: Once they’ve understood the ideas, the writing is clear. When they haven’t, the writing is jumbled.

[8] No, the next few paragraphs are not that reflection. Rather, I need to write another reflective essay.

[9] Not to be confused with Sheila E.

[10] For example, a crate of crayons.

[11] I was going to write something about my frustration with my students using rag bond (that they found while cleaning my lab) as note paper, but that’s not a positive.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-17.