My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 4, #17,
November 9, 1998


Buy a big bright green pleasure machine

Paul Simon

I had a great week at the Internet Librarians conference in Monterey, learning lots of useful things, meeting people whose work I've admired since I first got involved with the net, and visiting exhibits. I walked on the beach and watched seals and pelicans at play. But however high-minded the purpose for my trip, it ended the way trips always end--with shopping. Bringing back stuff is how you prove you were there; I bought a beanie baby seal, therefore I existed in Monterey.

As I think back over the whole week, it seems to me that "stuff" is a running theme. There were the endless souvenir shops, filled with mugs and tee-shirts, keychains and nick-nacks, paintings and sculptures. Some of the stuff is actually art, and genuinely beautiful. The rest of it ranges from cutesy-poo to amazingly tacky. (At the Aquarium, I bought a garish glow-in-the-dark plastic ball filled with plastic sea-critters to add to the splendors of our Technical Services office, and barely resisted the temptation to buy little shark and turtle Christmas tree ornaments.) Are these things we would even want, if they didn't give us a physical reminder that yes, we went to the Aquarium and Cannery Row?

The exhibitors, of course, were giving away all kinds of stuff with their product name emblazoned on it--we were all carrying around identical Lexis-Nexis briefcases, writing with pens supplied by various database vendors, on notebooks supplied by Information Today and other vendors. I loaded up on these, because when your library is paying your expenses, you have a sworn duty to bring back freebies to your colleagues who didn't get to go. Watching The Mark of Zorro on the plane, it occurred to me he was going about revolution all wrong. What he should have done first was put his logo and revolutionary slogans on tee-shirts, posters, buttons, pins, even Zorro beer.

In the airports, we watched people carting mounds of stuff, humongous suitcases, backpacks, boomboxes, golfclubs, boxes, and trying to convince flight attendants that all of this stuff should be carry-on luggage because they couldn't afford to be separated from it, couldn't risk it ending up in the wrong city. I wondered what the point of traveling is if you're going to take your original environment with you. It reminded me of Thoreau's line, "How many a poor immortal soul have I met, well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty..."

I am left wondering why we collect all this stuff? What are we going to do with it? How much of it do we actually need? What do our belongings mean to us?

One of my friends told me that when she and her husband were getting ready to go to Africa as part of the Peace Corps, they had a party and invited their friends to help themselves to any of their belongings. Her mother was horrified--"You can't give away your dinner service and your crystal!" My friend didn't much care about crystal, but it had enormous symbolic value for her mother--a kind of proof of marriedness, maybe? Middle-classness? Even an object of envy, because perhaps she herself had had to scrimp and save for years to get nice dinnerware and crystal? I wonder if when she saw her daughter casually dispose of those things, she might have felt like she and everything she valued were also being rejected?

Part of the value of stuff may be that it gives us an illusion of control. To own our homes instead of renting is to not be subject to the mercies of a landlord (though we become subject to the vagaries of the housing market and insurance companies instead). Choosing the things we fill the house with is a way of creating a comfort zone, a kind of protective cocoon. At the same time it's a way of telling people who we are, or who we want them to think we are. Do we surround ourselves with exquisite, tasteful art? With movie posters and theatre programs? With expensive furniture, or with futons? With no furniture at all except beanbag cushions on the floor? Do we display shelf after shelf of books or CDs or Hummel figurines? Do we fill our homes with what makes us comfortable, or what makes a statement, or some blend of both?

I wonder if we start out by selecting stuff as a way of controlling our environment, and then find our stuff controlling us. We may have to buy a bigger house just to hold it all, furnishings to match it or display it properly, security systems to protect it. We may spend far more of our lives than we want just tending it, dusting and polishing and re-touching.

I wonder, too, if we continue to value our stuff, if everyday we look at it and feel pleased and soothed, or if it just becomes part of the background? Do we keep it because we love it, or because of inertia? If we had to move, how much of it would we take with us? If some of the boxes got lost along the way, how long would it take us to even notice they were gone?

When we go to the malls, is it because we need to buy something specific, or because we're bored with our stuff (and maybe with our lives)? Is it because stuff, or the act of choosing it, is a form of entertainment, or even therapy, a "big bright green pleasure machine"? Is getting shiny new stuff a way of making us a bit shinier too?

For that matter, is acquiring new stuff a competitive sport for us? For some people, and in certain professions, it clearly is true that he who dies with the most stuff (and the right brands of it) wins. It's a mystery to me who it is that decides what the right kind of car is, the right kind of suit or shoes or watch, but it's pretty clear that a Rolex watch is not there to tell time but to tell people you can afford to spend on a watch what other people spend on six months rent.

I'm thinking about this because my 800 square foot house is getting way too full of stuff, and I think from time to time about getting rid of it (or getting rid of my son's stuff, anyway). It's mostly books, of course--my friend Mark keeps telling me about this wonderful invention called a library, that would allow me to read the books and take them back, and yes, I am familiar with the concept. But I buy the books I love, and keep them so they'll be there when I want to read them again, share them with my friends, read them to my grandchildren someday, and libraries might throw these books away--hardly any libraries have a complete set of all 40 Oz books anymore. Even if I don't ever re-read them, I love the security and sense of safety they provide. I begin by loving them for their words and ideas, but I come to love the sense of being physically surrounded by long-term friends.

Whether we intend it to or not, I suspect our stuff does indeed define us. Maybe it's not a bad idea from time to time to look at all our stuff again and ask ourselves if it is still a definition we would choose, ask ourselves why we have the stuff, what it means to us, and whether we still want it. Maybe inviting friends in to help themselves to our belongings would be not a horrifying notion, but an immensely liberating one.

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