Saturday, July 12, 2008

Extra Possessions or Extra Money?

If you spend your money on junk, you won’t have money when you need it. But what is junk? A major article in the Washington Post excoriating de-cluttering TV shows and the pathetic people who agree to be on them points out that most ultra-messy houses include vast amounts of what are called “chachkas” (or “tsotchkes”) in Yiddish--a few key words of which anybody who lives in New York for a while picks up.

Basically, we’re talking about decorative items that serve no function or are so overdecorated or designed that they can only appeal to a specific taste. So a chachka is not a simple bowl, for instance, that could hold fruit or cereal or stew. But it could be a purple plastic bowl that changes color and reveals a superhero drawing on the side when hot water and oatmeal are placed in it. More likely, it’s a statue or a plaque. A Star Wars character, or an idealized Irish princess, or even Elvis. Most of us do not own 18th century Meissen porcelain shepherdess statues, painted and gilded and worth thousands of dollars. We own mass-produced junk.

Looking around my office now (because de-cluttering starts at home, after all, and I do not profess to be a goddess of clean surfaces) I see a series of windowsills, bookcase tops, and tables on which I have placed personal memorabilia. Most of it is related to my family or to my travels. On one windowsill alone, I have a flashlight, a keychain from France in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, a wooden ice cream spoon from Japan, a paper fan also from Japan, a blue glass votive candle holder with a tiny Australian flag shoved inside, a clock radio, and two tiny framed photos of my child.

Seems harmless enough, but despite new batteries and bulb, the flashlight doesn’t work. But it’s my oldest flashlight, one I was given as a kid when I was getting up at 5AM in the summer on Sundays to deliver newspapers. Is it functional? No. I’m holding onto a piece of junk because it’s from my childhood. Thus, clutter starts. I know someone who won’t part with a broken light fixture from childhood. It’s rusty, too. It has been sitting in the attic for over 20 years.

The key chain isn’t holding any keys. It’s just there so I have something to play with while I’m on the phone. The fan, the ice cream spoon, and the flag are souvenirs and alternate toys for nervous fingers. The votive candle holder is an attempt to decorate the windowsill. The clock radio works, but at night half the dial is flooded with the radio station playing Delilah, and I despise her. So I ought to give the radio to charity and buy a higher quality radio that will keep her in her place. As for the two photos of my kid, well, I get a pass on them.

There’s a reason for everything. But that’s just one windowsill. Now imagine if I allowed that kind of clutter on every surface in my house. Worse, imagine that I bought the items that created that clutter. New, at stores, used, at garage sales and thrift shops or on eBay. Thus not only would I be cluttering up my home, but I would be paying to do it. Not a good idea.

I once knew a woman who lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. She explained that if she bought a book, she had to get rid of a book. If all of us followed that principle, we wouldn’t have clutter. I’d get rid of an old flashlight every time I bought a new one. And if we managed to sell or give what we disposed of to a good home, the net cost of new possessions would be less. It’s never going to be dollar-for-dollar, though. What can I sell my old flashlight for? It doesn’t work. A keychain from France? A used wooden ice cream spoon from Japan? Despite the myth that everything sells for big money on eBay, junk doesn’t sell anywhere.

Are Americans fixated on having extra of everything? Why must I have three items on my windowsill to occupy my nervous fingers during a phone call? Wouldn’t one be enough? A bookcase top reveals half a dozen tiny statues of turtles, in metal, china, and plastic. Sure, I like turtles. But how many do I need decorating my bookcase? Did I buy all those turtles? Or did I buy one or two, and other people who saw I liked them bought me more? Are we all keeping the consumer economy afloat with purchases of multiples of things that serve no function, such as my turtles, and even of those that do, like flashlights? On extras?

It’s nice to have enough money to fritter it away on little extras like decorative statues or multiple flashlights. But the people who bought the Meissen shepherdesses in the 18th century were the rich. Not the middle class, which disdained ornamentation and was legally barred from it in many countries. So aren’t all these seemingly harmless extras in our possession our attempt to declare that we are rich? Yet the real rich either display genuine Meissen shepherdesses of museum quality or live in starkly modern mansions where no decorative items are strewn about. Most of the rest of us clutter our homes with valueless sentimental junk or useless chachkas.

So here’s a thought about how to reduce the clutter at home. Why don’t I give that flashlight one more try? Move the batteries around, scrape the electrical connections, check the bulb. And if it still doesn’t work, I’ll toss it. And you look around and find something of equivalent or larger size that you are holding onto for similar reasons, and do the same. Then, we’ll both wait a week and see if we actually need to replace what we dumped.

Should I buy another flashlight? Do I need one? It might be a good idea for the next power outage. On the other hand, we just had a long power outage and the first flashlight I found that did work was plenty. I had extra batteries in case I ran it down. But extra flashlights were just that. Extra. Maybe we all need to stop insisting on so many extra possessions in our lives. Maybe then we’d have some extra money.

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