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Hoard or Not to Hoard 

Material World: How much stuff is enough?

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A few months ago, I helped my son build a shed in his back yard. He needed storage space for his stuff. It was a very large shed. It enclosed 2,688 cubic feet. That equates to a room large enough to hold 5,000 cases of canned beer.

My son and his wife have three kids and a golden retriever. Now on a first-name basis with UPS and FedEx carriers, they have accumulated so much stuff that they are no longer able to fit the cars in the garage. The onset of winter makes the problem worse. Where to store outdoor furniture, strollers, bicycles, lawnmowers, planters and the like? Until last year, he had been able to truck the spillover to his in-law’s mostly empty, three-car garage, but his brother-in-law’s collection of vintage muscle cars has now eliminated that option. Stuff on mag wheels has permanently displaced my son’s summer stuff. Hence the need to build a shed.

I advised against the $6,000 construction project. Instead, I suggested a purge of the stuff in the garage and basement. Building additional storage capacity is treating symptoms, not disease, I said. Stuff is insidious. It accumulates in any empty space like stalagmites and before you know it, there is hardly a pathway through it. The new shed will be filled floor to ceiling in no time, I said. He shrugged.

I told him about a friend, a Marine Corps officer, who commanded an infantry company in Vietnam. As an amphibious unit, it had a single jeep and trailer and all the company’s administrative stuff was carried in six, “four cube” boxes not much larger than a suitcase. There was no room for extra stuff, no tolerance for accumulation. It’s a good model, I suggested. Lead a Teflon life, not a Velcro one. He shrugged again.

Stuff is to young families as metal filings are to magnets. Some percentage of the accumulation is unavoidable, even necessary. Some is simply self-indulgent.

Contributing to the problem is a widely held belief that stuff has value. PBS’s popular Antiques Roadshow is the best example. In the show, people bring stuff to a television studio to have it evaluated by experts. Most people believe their stuff is rare and therefore valuable. They cry for joy when an appraiser tells them that a hand-me-down table or a garage-sale painting is worth 10 grand. At that moment, I believe the correct response is not “Wow!” but rather, “I’ll take nine if you write me a check this minute.”

The acquisition phase of my life is behind me. I no longer acquire stuff to hang on the wall, set on a shelf, hang in a closet or stash in the garage. In fact, in our last household move, my wife and I winnowed our possessions ruthlessly. We did so because we had to shoehorn the remainder into a storage unit. Even books went. The process was sometimes wrenching. However, when all was said and done, I felt a sense of relief. The ballast had been jettisoned, and we were free to soar.

While we soared, our stuff waited in a mothball-scented storage unit. There, the rent mounted month by month. A few thousand dollars later, we packed our stuff into a U-Haul truck, drove to a Salvation Army warehouse and off-loaded a lot of it. In our absence, the value of grandma’s sewing machine and other stuff had diminished. As I handed the final check to the storage-unit manager, I lamented our lack of foresight. He consoled me in a fatherly way. “You’d be surprised how many people do the same thing,” he said.

What really surprises me is the growth of the self-storage industry. When I was dragooned into the Army in the late 1960s, self-storage was not an option. My stereo, books and Beatles albums were tucked away in the cavernous Redman Moving & Storage warehouse in Sugar House. Since then, windowless warrens of storage units have sprung up in Utah at a rate second only to that of pay-day loan franchises. Why that is I’m not sure. Do people move more often? Are apartments smaller? Are we more materialistic?

Whether you store it in a shed or throw it away, your stuff will outlast you.

While our throwaway lifestyle has caused landfills to bulge in recent years— each of us discards 1,200 pounds of stuff a year—I think materialism is a plague that predates the Black Death in 1348. Materialism is addressed in Dante’s “Inferno” (the epic poem, not the videogame) where it is symbolized by giant boulders. In the fourth circle of hell, two groups of damned souls contend with each other. Those who hoarded possessions and those who squandered them spend their days in hell, rolling the boulders around and fighting over them. I can’t imagine how materialism was manifest in Dante’s time, but I have no trouble recognizing it today—a McMansion with two SUVs in the driveway and a garageful of stuff.

The truth of the matter is that whether you store it in a shed or throw it away, your stuff may well outlast you. As Craig Mecham gutted Sugar House two years ago, oddments were discovered, and thanks to Jim Kirkham, the stuff was exhibited in the Sprague Library for a time. Kirkham’s finds were housed in a glass display case because they were evidently of a quality that would have fared well on Antiques Roadshow. Most impressive was a baseball-size grinding stone used by Fremont Indians around 1400. Kirkham’s carefully labeled stuff included an American Drug medicine bottle, a box of Chas. Pfizer Camphor Tablets and a bottle from the Utah Pickle company—all a century old. I asked a librarian who Jim Kirkham was. “I don’t know,” she said blankly.

Private Eye is off this week. John Rasmuson is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City.

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