In his Simple Life Prattle blog, Allan Douglas frequently writes about the strides he and his wife have made in their effort to streamline their lives. Reducing clutter and living with fewer possessions has been a big part of that, along with trading in their big-city home for five acres in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Much more space, many fewer things, and an amazing view.
My wife and I had a similar urge several years ago, but we went out for pizza and by the time we got home, the feeling had vanished. The problem is, we have too much stuff. Old computers and printers, as well as cables, modems, and power cords. Monitors the size of small boats. Jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, board games we keep in case someone might want to play them someday, videotapes of movies we recorded off the television and whose titles are no longer readable because the labels have turned brown with age. A cappuccino machine sits proudly on our kitchen counter; we haven’t made cappuccino since 1997.
At some point, probably during our Costco years, I began stocking up on underwear. Underwear! As though I might run out of them one day, the way you run out of milk. I guess I worried that I’d open my top drawer and see that I had no underwear left and suddenly remember that I was supposed to pick up some on my way home because I had used the last three pairs the day before. It may have been related to my typical male tendency to treat underwear like a pet I can’t bear to part with, holding onto each pair until it’s little more than an elastic band with tassels. My mother, like all mothers before and since, warned me about always wearing presentable underwear in case I ever got into an accident. As a child I tried to connect the two ideas in a logical way. I imagined lying on the street in a pool of my own blood with shards of broken windshield and a bent hubcap piercing my neck, and hearing the paramedics say, “We’ve done all we can for him. But before we leave, let’s rip his pants off and see what kind of shape his underwear is in.”
One year my wife and I got the idea to rent a space at the local flea market. That way, we reasoned, we could get rid of a ton of clutter and make some money at the same time. So extremely early on a Saturday morning, we filled the car with boxes of items and drove to the flea market location. We arrived to find hundreds of other vendors all unloading their vans and trucks. After setting up the table and carefully positioning our treasures for maximum display effectiveness, we affixed price stickers to each one and sat down to wait for the onslaught of crazed customers. We sat all morning and into the afternoon. We sat through blistering sun and swarms of incredibly irritating gnats. We sat and sat. Actually, I’m exaggerating. Sometimes we stood up and walked around to avoid forming blood clots in our thighs. But mostly we sat and watched millions of people stroll by our table. Often they would stop to carefully examine every item, then leave without saying a word. One of the things we were selling was a bright yellow metal pitcher with a round handle and a long pointed spout. After three or four hours of watching people pick it up and put it down, I began to fantasize about clubbing someone over the head with the pitcher, holding it by the long pointed spout for maximum impact.
A little after two o’clock, I decided that it might be a good idea to wander around and take a look at what the other vendors were doing. They seemed to be having better luck, and maybe they knew something we didn’t. I would do some spying, then return and employ their methods, impressing my wife with my new-found sales prowess. During my mission I also found some great bargains. I was gone a good forty-five minutes, and when I returned to the table, my wife said no one had even been by to paw over our items. I told her about the wondrous things I had seen five rows over and we both went to look. We bought many of those things and hauled them back to our table. Soon the flea market was over and we went home with all of our stuff and the great stuff we had purchased, too. It almost didn’t fit in the car.
We now have a coat closet no one has looked into since the second term of the Clinton administration. It’s a dangerous place, filled with boots, brooms, and vacuum cleaner attachments. We have kitchen cabinets that, when you open the door, you have to jump out of the way. You know that junk drawer you have in your house, the one that’s jammed with things you don’t know what else to do with? We have dozens of big Rubbermaid crates filled with that stuff, things that defy placement or even categorizing. About once a year I open up one of the crates, determined to sort out its contents. Within minutes I’m sitting on the floor, yelling and throwing things and punching myself in the face.
In 2002, I bought a box of fifty thousand staples. If my life were hanging in the balance I couldn’t tell you why. I still have a box of five thousand staples I bought in 1978. I also have boxes of paper clips, clamps, rubber bands, and push pins. We have no money, but our children will never want for fasteners.
We have bolts of fabric. (For any men who might be reading this, a bolt of fabric is a thick cardboard roll, about five feet long, that’s wrapped with yards and yards of material that was purchased at a clearance sale from stores with names like Fabric Land and Fabric World. Bolts may be easily stood on end, leaned against a wall, and ignored for years at a time. If you accumulate enough bolts, I think the theory goes, you can one day open your own store and maybe call it Fabric Universe.) (If my wife happens to be reading this, I’m just kidding. I love bolts of fabric, and consider them to be members of the family.)
I mentioned our old camcorder in a previous post. That astonishingly-enormous piece of equipment still sits on a shelf in a spare room. And I say our old camcorder, but in fact, it was my wife’s camera and she had it long before she met me. In moments of frustration, I occasionally start to say something like, “Either the camera goes or I go,” but then I’m overcome with doubts about my own self-worth and I shut up.
Maybe I should mention here that we’re not out of control. We’ve watched those television shows about hoarders, people who have so much stuff that they need pogo sticks to get from one room to another. It isn’t nearly that bad, although there are a lot of cardboard boxes, the ones that clock radios and toasters came in, along with the assorted chunks of styrofoam, transparent bags, and twist ties. We’d saved the boxes when the appliances were new, just in case something had to be returned to the store. The clock radios and toasters are long gone, but the boxes are still here.
So how will my wife and I follow Allan’s example and simplify our lives? For one thing, we could use the bolts of fabric to make our own underwear. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner, although the floral prints have may something to do with it. Or I could continue to stockpile triple packs of boxer briefs, eventually accumulating enough inventory to open my own store: Underwear World. That seems unrealistic. Maybe I’ll gather my excess staples and paper clips and donate them to a local charity, the kind that does a lot of mailing and filing. An eBay business is also a possibility. I’m pretty sure there’s a big demand for old camcorders and cappuccino machines, and metal pitchers with long pointed spouts.
But chances are, we’ll just rent a table at the local flea market. And who knows? While we’re there, we might find the perfect thing to fill that gaping empty space we still have in one corner of the living room.