It’s insidious. If you live in a house, it’ll be lurking upstairs, downstairs, and almost certainly in your garage, basement and garden shed. And if, like me, you live in the more restrictive space of an apartment, it’s even tougher to cope with.
If you have too much of this pernicious thing, it multiplies itself over time until, like some monster organism in a sci-fi movie, it begins to take over the house.
I and my wonderful wife, Lynn, declared war against this invader when we lived in a lakeside house in Connecticut. We had no weapons, suffered no casualties and took no prisoners, because our war wasn’t against terrorists or tin-pot tyrants. No, our enemy was stuff.
The need to act became obvious when we were were spring cleaning in the cellar. Among the things we discovered down there – besides dead spiders, dead creepy-crawlies and sawdust from my last attempt at woodworking – were that we had, for example, no fewer than six screwdrivers, umpteen wrenches and countless years old seed packets with long expired use-by dates, and a hoard of empty propane bottles. Scarce shelf-space was taken up by two dozen old jars of unassorted nails, screws, nuts and bolts, and a stack of one-gallon cans of dried-up paint. Other useless objects lurked in the shadows, including derelict heaters and fans, and several infant-sized life jackets and car seats, all of which were now useless, since the oldest of our thirteen grandchildren is a mother in her thirties.
That part of our private war on stuff was relatively simple. A few of our adult children were happy to take a tool or a paintbrush or two, while the rest of it could be bagged up in the garbage, or driven to the town dump. But, emotionally, it was much harder to part with clothes and other household things. You can get pretty sentimental about the pair of pajamas you bought for your honeymoon, or that Hindu thingummy that dear old Aunt Gertie brought back from India. Getting rid of that sort of thing calls for a hardening of the heart, and repeated reassurance from your partner that you'll never wear that garment, or put that ornament or whatnot on the mantle or credenza again. After that it's easy.
Upstairs, we each started with our own clothes closets. In mine, the garments were so crowded together on their hangers that it was almost impossible to elbow them apart to select one. How many shirts, sweaters and cardigans does a man need? And since I wear one maybe three times a year, why do I still have more than fifteen designer, regimental and club ties from my working days dangling from a rotary tie-dispenser whose batteries died years ago? There were enough pairs of shoes to turn Imelda Marcos green with envy; black and brown formal shoes, sneakers, gardening shoes, canvas beach shoes, sandals, wellies, and some hiking boots with soles like tractor-tires that I haven’t worn for ages.
The hardest decisions of all were about suits and blazers. The suits came in formal and casual styles in shades of grey and navy in weights for winter, summer and tropical wear. These, and a tux I now wear about as rarely as a tie, were reduced to two suits, which is probably one too many.
Lynn went through the same process, but was much more deliberate and relentless about it. Aren’t women meant to be more sentimental than men? I was amazed to see how easily she could turn her back on once-cherished suits and dresses like so many scorned, discarded lovers. To me, those outfits were landmarks of some of our happiest and most poignant moments of life together over all these decades.
Finally we progressed to drawers stuffed with underwear and so many socks that you had to lean against the drawers to close them. Even the dining room revealed surplus china, table mats, coasters, glasses and a treasure trove of cutlery.
In the end, bolstering each other’s determination not to squirrel away this or that item for another decade, we had overcome the enemy. By the time we were finished – and the process took more than two days – the kitchen and the space around the back door were jam-packed with a mountain of bulging plastic bags. We were ready for the final act of disposal.
There was a nice thrift shop along Route 202 that benefited our local hospital.
“Put them over there,” said a decidedly upper-crust volunteer lady, pointing toward a corner stacked to eye-level with a dowdy pile of cast-off clothes.
Nothing impresses these people. No eyes opened a little wider at such a display of, say, Brooks Brothers and Jaeger labels and the distinctive styles of Gucci and Hermes. To them they were so much, well, stuff.
Wherever you go these days you see those anonymous-looking self-storage places where they’ll lock away your unused clothes and household items in window-less, temperature-controlled rooms. I’m sure these have their uses, but I’ll bet many of them would be half-empty if their customers adopted our simple war cry – if you don't need it, junk it.