Posted on July 3, 2011 by


Before I could get on my way, I had to first clean out the contents of my old crunched-up car and transfer the items to my new one. I had no idea that the glove compartment held so much: a driver’s manual that I never consulted, some receipts, a water bottle half filled with ancient water, a book I had stopped reading, a sheaf of maps made redundant by my GPS, a set of tools made of soft steel that would bend if I used them, and a flashlight with a corroded battery. There was also a box of fuzzy green granola bars that had expired five years ago. There were no gloves.

In the center console, aside from a stack of CDs, only half of which I liked, was another half dozen granola bars, another corroded flashlight, a Swiss army knife I couldn’t open, more maps and a compass, also made redundant by the GPS, and, oh, the GPS case and instruction manual that I never consulted.

A pair of fuzzy dice that were a gift sent to me by my daughter when I bought the car, had faded before my very eyes while hanging from the rear view mirror. I hadn’t noticed them in years.

Under the seats was another useless flashlight, two umbrellas, one which had sprung, some coins and softened chips, bottle tops, napkins, pens that wouldn’t write, tissues, and sticky candy. A six pack of Curt’s empty beer bottles still rolled around.

On the passenger seat was the laptop on which I write this futile blog, an open bag of chips, some Twinkie wrappers, and Samantha, my GPS, a refugee from the dash during the car crash.

The door pockets held more redundant maps, enough Granola bars to sustain a commune, and more ancient water bottles.

Every cup holder had a cup, even in the back seat, where no one has sat in years.

The back seat had discarded clothing and hats, two grocery bags of chips, three smashed tissue boxes, a pillow with a drool stain, and some more books I had stopped reading, more water bottles, and, yes, another box of Granola bars.

An archeological dig in the trunk under my suitcases revealed another set of soft tools, another corroded flashlight, some jumper cables I never needed, empty grocery bags, and a funky smelling blanket.

I thought of setting up a yard sale right there, but no one in his right mind would want the stuff. I threw everything out but the fuzzy dice that I thought I would need for conversation in the long ride with my daughter. I attempted to calculate the poundage of useless crap that I had pointlessly driven around for years, the gas I had spent doing so, and my contribution to climate change. The weight was roughly equal to the excess blubber that I meaninglessly carried around the middle of my body.

My hero is the African Bushman. He doesn’t have much stuff. He can get around the Kalahari Desert perfectly well with nothing more than a walking stick, a water gourd, and an unerring sense of direction. Before he picks something up and carries it, he considers whether he will need it and whether he can get it again later in his trek. More thinking, less work, is his motto.

For the rest of us who let stuff pile up in the attic, we accumulate both maps and GPS and lose our sense of direction. We lose our way, having depended on what another person, a programmer, a mapmaker, thought was important to find.

Then there’s the contents of my mental glove compartment: that place where I store unexamined beliefs, corrosive memories, and maladaptive emotional responses. Will I be needing my resentments on this trip when I see my ex-wife? Do I need to carry around so much shame? Have my paternalistic attitudes towards marriage grown mold? Have I ever, ever consulted those beliefs that I have that I am not the center of the universe?

We should really think about every act of ownership, whether we own an unusable flashlight or a dated attitude. What we need to think about is how intelligent is this stuff and how much does it really serve? Do I really need this Rand-McNally when I have Samantha, my GPS? We need to decide and not let our stuff decide for us.

My fellow blogger, Venkat, thought so in his fascinating post on stuffology, the science of stuff.

When you don’t govern your stuff, your stuff governs you. There are two variants of this, bad and worse. When your stuff is merely dumb, your life merely gets dumb and random. When your stuff is actually smart in the service of the goals of others, your life gets worse than random. It gets toxic, and predatory forces squeeze all value out of it

He would say I have an opportunity to make over my life by delivering a stuff shock to myself. That’s the shock of getting rid of some stuff and the freedom it gives you to change direction. Not only can I make a clean break from all this stuff, but, in doing so, I can change my life.

…shocks can be a good thing.

In fact they are necessary. Lifestyles are just too complex to understand and re-engineer without them. There is really no gentle, gradual evolutionary approach. Each time you want to make a significant change to your lifestyle, you have to deliver a shock.

… Stuff-shocks keep you in charge, and don’t allow stuff to grow by unexamined accretion for too long. We cannot think about every ownership decision, but periodic shocks force us to periodically inject a large dose of intelligence into our patterns of ownership.

I drove away from my dear old Toyota towards my family with a lightened car and a lighter attitude. Everything was lighter but the blubber in my middle, and that I vowed to work on as well.

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