Stuff Versus Things

I love having stuff.  Not in a sentimental way where I tie memories to the stuff that I own, because I am not a very sentimental person.  I kind of wish that I had the memory tie in, where I couldn’t get rid of stuff because I was so attached to them, instead it isn’t about the stuff that I own, but it is about ownership.  This is somehow both shallow and visceral and dealing with that duality is kind of tearing me apart.  And like anything that eats at me I find the best way to cut through it and put it behind me is to try and put it into words.

When I was a teenager and went down the rabbit hole of rock music I fell in love with the idea of controlled chaos.  I was never an especially tidy person, but during those years I went off the wall.  I took the chaotic nature of the music that I listened to and created a corresponding physical chaos in whatever I owned.  I started covering my walls with music flyers, and my notebooks and water bottles with stickers.  Everything was arrayed in an erratic pattern that seemed to have no structure, it was like a complex code that only I could crack, because no matter how strewed things were I knew exactly where everything was.  During my freshman year the head of residence life used my dorm room as an example of the type of mess that the RAs should not allow on their floor.  To prove him wrong I challenged him to name anything that I own and I would direct him to is in seconds, he found my biology book under the stack of CDs behind my guitar in the closet.  It might not be arrayed in any way that make sense, but it was mine, and I knew exactly where it was.

Once I moved out of the dorms things got crazier.  Now I had an entire house that I needed to furnish, which I did by raiding dumpsters, trash piles, and goodwill.  We literally knew the garbage pickup days for the city of Albany and would drive around looking for cool stuff or pieces that would serve as an upgrade over the crap that we had picked up during previous weeks.  It was a bad habit, but to be fair we did wind up with some pretty cool stuff, like they say some people’s trash becomes frat house legends.  One time we actually found a toilet, tossed it in the back of my truck and brought it to the room with the dirt floor in our basement where guys used piss during parties, it was supposed to be the ultimate joke.  Until the first party where someone took a dump in it, the joke was on us.

After I moved out of the frat houses, and spent a year on the road with only the possessions that would fit in the back of my van I found myself needing to start again.  I furnished my first few apartments with hand me down furniture and things that I bought at discount shops.  I kind of shudder thinking about it now, for 2 years I lived in this beautiful $1500 a month townhouse with a fancy fireplace and recessed lighting, and it was packed full of beat up furniture and miscellaneous crap.  There were a few times that I had to literally stop myself from picking stuff up from the side of the road by saying “You are a god damn doctor, you should not dig through the trash.”   It was around the time that I made the mental switch from wanting to own stuff to wanting to own things.

Stuff and things may sound like an insignificant linguistic distinction, but in my mind it means the world.  Stuff is easily acquired, it is easily replaced, it is nothing important.  Things have meaning, durability, and a larger cost associated with them.  Things are what grownups have, things move with you when you leave a place, stuff gets put out on the curb to be picked over by college students, and the occasional doctor of pharmacy.  It was a glacial change, because things can get expensive, but after a few years I think that I have finally hit the point that I have very little stuff, and most of what I own is things.

A while ago I looked at my life and actually saw more things than I really need.  I enjoy buying things, especially things that convey meaning.  Buying books or artwork is a very fulfilling experience, it helps to satisfy the primal need to obtain while getting something that provides a return.  I have boxes of artwork in my closets, and books with Borders price tags on my shelf, every kitchen tool known to man, and more brewery glassware than I could ever drink out of.  Even after going through several rounds of purging because of moves and reading several books about minimalism, I am finding that I still have too much.  I realize that for someone like me minimalism in an unobtainable ideal, but I need to at least curb my need for maximalism.

Over the past year my goal was to upgrade the things that I used the most.  It sounds silly but buying a new kitchen scale to replace the crap one that I bought at Kmart was one of the biggest wins of 2016 because now the one I have is functional, beautiful, and works properly.  I took it a step farther and started to upgrade and standardize my wardrobe to reduce decision fatigue in the mornings and allow me to save my brain power for the things that really matter.  I may have gone a bit overboard spending a good amount of time and money shopping online, trying to find things that would fulfill my needs.  I ran the numbers and during 2016 I had 76 Amazon orders, not 76 separate things, 76 separate orders, often with multiple things in them.  And that doesn’t count the things that I bought from any of the other websites that I use for clothes or gear.  This level of consumerism is ridiculous, and I kind of hate myself for being disappointed whenever I get home from work and there is no package at the door.  But disappointment and shame are often the key to making changes, and that is the plan for 2017.

I don’t like doing resolutions, but I am a huge fan of goals.  Resolutions are extraneous and are hard to quantify, but goals fit better into systems and plans, and I am a systems and plans type of guy.  The first step will be to curb my Amazon addiction.  Having Prime set up with one click makes things too easy, especially when I have been drinking.  I am going to try and limit purchases to once every 2 weeks, so that on that set day I make a purchase of everything that I have thought about that has made it out of the impulse window.  I will also be avoiding the Lifehacker deals site, which is a gateway into a world of deals of stuff that I really don’t need (see also Sous Vide immersion circulator).  By buying less I will hopefully save some money and won’t have to focus on so much reduction, which will simplify my life.

I don’t ever think that I will move to full minimalism, but I also don’t plan on spending any more time dumpster diving.  My life is crazy and chaotic enough that I no longer need a physical manifestation of clutter.  Hopefully I can continue making the switch from stuff to things, and continue upgrading my life, but at a more comfortable and planned pace.  Maybe after years of trying I can finally silence the teenaged anarchist in my brain telling me that everything I own will look better with a sticker on it.

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