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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Friday, September 8, 2023

There’s a word that is making me pensive today. The word is disposable. I was thinking about it as I organized my closet.

I’m going through that phase where you’re tired of looking at everything and think that people who have one chair and a mattress on the floor are onto something. The slash-and-purge phase.

My current phase is less about purging, though that’s on the table, and more about organizing the unpurged. The majority of the stuff in my closet isn’t going anywhere, but it would be really nice to be able to find it when I want it.

I cannot overstate how aggravating it is to hear a sentence that begins with the words where’s that thing we had…

Because I KNOW that’s going to be followed by an hour of tearing through drawers and cabinets and boxes and wondering why do we have all this stuff? and that’s IT I’m never doing this again!

Anyway, I’ve been organizing, slowly but surely, making the get-rid-of pile and boxing up everything else.

And as I’ve been doing this, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of disposability and wondering if there will be such a thing as antiques anymore.

Technically antiques have to be what, 100 years old? The thing that makes antiques valuable isn’t just their age, it’s their continued existence and their relative scarcity.

We all have the same mass produced crap today. Most of what you buy is built to break. I’m not trying to be negative, it’s just the truth. It’s the down side of consumer culture.

Back in the day you bought a refrigerator and that was that.

Now, you’re lucky you get five years out of one, because how can they sell you a new refrigerator otherwise?

The entire economy would collapse if we didn’t shed our entire lives and replace them every few years.

Old refrigerators are antiques because the vast majority of them were used for decades, because that’s how long they lasted, and then we all upgraded to “new and improved” and the few that survived The Great Improvement made it to antique status.

What’s going to be antique 100 years from today? The plastic box I just put my cables in? My cables?

Nothing we use today, not our refrigerators or our forks or our candle jars will make it to antique status. Either they will die and end up in a landfill long before that, or they will have been so mass produced that there won’t be anything special about them.

I know there will be things that people will pay stupid amounts of money for, because people are stupid.

Like if you have a limited edition Big Purple Foot Barbie in the original box, someone somewhere will NEED that and pay you for it. But that doesn’t make it special or antique. That’s not interesting, that’s just capitalism.

My grandmother used to lament that she wished she had kept all the baseball cards from when she was young. She could have made a fortune.

But you know why those baseball cards were valuable? Because nobody kept all the baseball cards from when they were young.

Because back in the day they were baseball cards and you’d flip them and trade them and put them in the spokes of your bike wheels. Then some lucky soul found a Joe DiMaggio card in their grandfather’s shoebox and cashed in because it was so rare and special.

Big Purple Foot Barbie is not rare, it is just kitsch that people collect and don’t love but keep in the event that one day it will be a collectible and make them rich on eBay.

I think perhaps that objects, like people, have to be loved. Loved through use and through enjoyment, accumulating all the imperfections of years, stories etched into their surfaces as scratches and cracks and creases and dings.

So if we’re not going to have anything more special than the made-in-China junk we collect in our made-in-China boxes, and if nothing is going to last anyway, what will really exist of us? I mean, what, that matters?

I’m not saying everyone’s closet should leave a legacy but it made me a little sad to think about how disposable things are. Nor am I saying we should be wholly attached to inanimate objects, but there is something to be said for longevity, and for loving what you do own, and for owning what matters and not everything ever made in China.

I go through The Purge periodically and make a clean sweep of all the crap I’ve accumulated. Occasionally I have a zen moment and think I do not need worldly attachments, and then I get rid of things and regret it later. Not often. But once in a while.

I wish I had not gotten rid of my vinyl records, for example. Not because they would have been worth anything but because I loved them until I decided they were taking up room pointlessly.

I don’t lose sleep over it but sometimes I sigh.

There’s only one thing I regret getting rid of that I do lose sleep over: lamp shades.

For as long as I can remember I had always wanted the lamps my grandmother had with the little roses on the sides. They were so pretty and like all things in grandma’s house, they came with years of happy memories attached.

She gave the lamps to me and I promptly wrapped them in ten feet of bubble wrap and put them in the attic because I did not have a room to put them in. Then when we moved, I kept the lamps but got rid of the shades.

They were big. And we had literally just packed the last of everything in the house into the back of our car so we could make our final trip to Brigantine, and I was standing there with these giant lamp shades that couldn’t be bent, folded or crammed, and I couldn’t bear to make Ralph disassemble everything to try to wedge these lamp shades into the car.

So I made an excuse for myself and said that my grandmother wasn’t attached to lamp shades, which was probably true. I remember her replacing them on her lamps a few times, when they got old or dusty or dull.

Not these though. These, to my knowledge, had never been replaced.

At the time I had a little conversation with her in my head.

I have to get these in the car.

Achfffff, just throw them out! Get new ones when you get your new house.

But these are yours. I love them.

:::flick of the wrist::: They’re just lamp shades.

I convinced myself that she would not care, she would tell me not to worry about it and to get new ones. I imagined she would have said they’re just things. And probably she would have.

But it bothers me to this day that I threw them out. I feel like those shades were exactly the point of everything I just wrote here today. A thing with stories, a thing that was loved.

I have the base of the lamps but I will never find a shade like the one I got rid of. I took pictures of them though, so maybe one day when I have a billion dollars I can pay someone to craft lookalike shades. That’s my plan, anyway.

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the dispensable made-in-China junk and the indispensable made-in-China not-quite-junk.

I also have a lamp – a small Chinese lantern to be more specific – that my grandfather gave me. He got it with some stuff he imported for his flower shop. It was, in fact, made in China. One day I suppose it will be “antique” in that way that things become antique by virtue of their age, and I’m not sure how many granddaughters kept their Chinese lanterns for nearly 50 years, so who knows, maybe my lamp will be unique among kitsch.

But it is indispensable and that has nothing to do with how much I can sell it for on eBay.

As you can see, cleaning out a closet can be tricky business.

Anyway, I strongly suspect my plastic boxes and cables are worth nothing – now or ever. And I did finally throw out a pair of shoes that had a hole worn in the bottom, and I doubt I will have any latent regrets.

But I did keep the things that have stories attached. I have a lot of things.

After a day with this reflection I have come to the conclusion that it’s not about the things but what you do with them. Things in a box are not valuable. They are only as valuable as the love and attention they get. So I am going to spend more time enjoying the things I have and appreciating the moments they contain.

Except the cables. Honestly, why does a person need that many cables?

Photo: a few cables in my newly organized box. I assure you that however many cables you think are there, it is exponentially more. No, I do not know what they are all for.