On My Mind, Aug. 31: All that stuff


By TARMO HANNULA

I’m feeling trapped by all my stuff. It’s everywhere — my garage, closets, drawers. And I know this much: Most of it I don’t even need — that’s the sad fact that’s been lurking around in my skull lately and I don’t like it. Though I’ve become skilled at avoiding thoughts about being older and unable to deal with these things, the thought still manages to barge into my head now and again, especially when I’m around folks older than me and they talk about such things.

Years ago an old timer told me to watch out because “if you’re not careful, you’ll end up belonging to your belongings.” At the time I thought it was a catchy jingle, a tidbit of lofty advice that surely wasn’t aimed at me. Well, it is now, and boy am I slow to catch on.

The American comedian George Carlin once did a brilliant bit on stuff. He cleverly uses the word stuff over and over and eventually builds a hilarious picture of how most of us are engulfed with our stuff, even resorting to the notion that the main reason we even own a home is to have a place to keep all our stuff. He hilariously goes on to state that many of us even pay big bucks to rent another place to store our stuff. In his comedy routine, Carlin explores the idea of traveling to Honolulu but not without two giant bags of “your stuff.” When you get to your hotel room, he explains, the first thing you do is put some of your stuff in a drawer, other stuff on a counter, more stuff in the bathroom and stuff in the closet.

And then what do you do? Carlin asks. Go out shopping for more stuff.

When my wife Sarah and I walk around our neighborhood it always amazes me how many homes we notice with their garages yawning wide open that are packed full of stuff. Many places have towering piles of stuff with little aisles between boxes and bags and junk piled to the ceiling.

Recently I tore into a pile of stuff in my garage and I started heaving things out. What’s wrong about this is that there were a lot of things I didn’t even know we had. So what’s the point? Just to keep stuff?

I read in the New Yorker magazine a fascinating article once about stuff and why people hang on to certain things, things that make them feel good or give them a sense of grounding or purpose. The author wrote that, among a host of things all over his house, his wife had, over the years, built up a collection of small glass figurines in the shape of animals, giraffes, camels, sheep. He said he had grown to hate those animals because he felt they were useless, unattractive and in the way. His wife would line the kitchen windowsill with them. Then, without talking about it, he would quietly filter the animals into a drawer, out of sight. But she would eventually find them and march them back onto the windowsill. That pattern, he wrote, went on for some time, like a game they silently played.

Then came the bad news. His wife learned she had cancer. The writer went to explain that it came on quick and one day the cancer took away his wife. The man then very gingerly explained how he now carefully lines the kitchen windowsill with those little glass animals and sees them in an entirely new light. He said he asks himself, “what was I not seeing all those years?”

I wrote about it before but it’s worth mentioning again that breaking down my parents’ house, once my mother died a few years back, was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Far greater than the physical challenge of hauling boxes, furniture, carpets and everything else was the emotional drain. To see so many things that I had grown up with being lugged out the front door by a crew of big strong men and heaved into a large truck with the sign 1-800 GOT JUNK emblazoned on the side was unbelievably taxing. Stacks of collectible Fiesta ware, paintings, beautiful ceramic flower pots, Revere ware cook pots that had been in the family since I was a kid, all tossed onto the heap and hauled away.

Granted, I took a lion’s share of stuff home with me including a 400-pound antique butcher block, which now dominates my garage. More stuff. My folks bought that butcher block back in Washington D.C. from a small family grocery. Word has it that the store was once robbed and the robber fired off a round into the butcher block during the heist. That butcher block followed my family as we moved from D.C. to Guam and then on to San Diego. And now it resides in my home in Santa Cruz. That’s a lot of miles for a piece — a very heavy piece — of furniture. And I am haunted by the idea that when I’m in a wheel chair I simply won’t be able to deal with it.

Oh well, back to sorting through my stuff.

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Tarmo Hannula can be reached at 761-7330 or [email protected]

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