Thursday, January 15, 2009


It's one of the teenage answers:

"How are you, honey?"

"Would you like M&Ms on your pastrami sandwich?"
"I guess."

"What did you do today, honey?"

The secret word for tonight is "STUFF." Except for its form as a verb, stuff is a pretty ambiguous word. If read enough times in succession, one may find its meaning to cease altogether. Stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff. Just a bunch of symbols. Now no longer ambiguous, "STUFF" enters the realm of the absurd. Read it again with me: STUFF?

We've all got it. Some of us are it (in adjective form: stuffy). It happens to our noses (verb: stuffed). We acquire it, lose it, deal it, and heehaw over its value in our lives. I got my stuff back recently. Previously it was across the country, and I acquired lots of stuff during my separation from stuff to partially replace the stuff I had been using, but which was so far away. I now have an abundance of stuff. Most of it is useful, and some is just for decoration.

Now the questions: Is it good to have all this stuff (AGAIN)? Well, what was it like without it?

It is nice to see most of this stuff again. Without it, recently, I had been proclaiming at random the things I was going to have in the near future (an apron! a pizza peel! a regular-sized pillow!). However, except for the upgrade in quality of stuff (the old, had-stuff as opposed to the newer, replacement stuff), I could have gotten by quite easily without all this stuff, as I had been for the last four months (plus three months on the road with even less stuff and even more excitement; is there a causative relationship here?).

The option of selling all my stuff and starting from scratch had been considered, tossed up and down like a baseball while determining the best pitch. It's full count (toss up), this guy's not the greatest hitter (catch), but it's the eighth inning and I'm tired (toss up), and the next guy's so good I'll just walk him (catch). It was just like that, come to think of it. The option was overridden by the potential energy spent selecting the items to be sold, assessing their value, selling them, then reacquiring similar items without sacrificing quality over price. Complicated. Such are the mechanisms of stuff.

So now I have stuff all over the house (the house itself does not count as stuff; I think stuff is inherently plural). Lots of it has become unpacked and strewn about in a fashion that is more than disorderly but less than symmetrical. It has been creatively arranged to divide space and indicate a particular activity that is designated for that space (large dining room table is reserved for accumulation of stuff; constantly-unraveling rug in the bathroom denotes bathroom activities, etc.). I am of a mind (of whose mind, I know not) that there is actually TOO MUCH STUFF in the house. This is a condition that can develop several plot lines:

1) Disease/virus: symptoms include growth and multiplication of stuff. If left unattended, normal operations may become affected or cease altogether.

2) Profit: stuff is sold, marketed cleverly on Craigslist. Example: "Coby DVD player, nearly new, with box, manual, remote. $20."

3) Stasis: due to constraints of time and willpower, stuff is stuffed. Closets will be relatively organized, but full. Stuff may stick around until it is decided that stuff will never be used or seen again.

Such are the infinite possibilities of stuff.

Some of the stuff I have is nostalgic. Things from my grandmother, Mona: a rug, painting, spoon, ice cream scoop, enameled cast-iron cookware, coffee table, a photograph of her as a beautiful young woman, a pair of sunglasses, a ceramic sign that reads "Casa Mona." That's most of the nostalgic stuff. I got a very strange feeling when I saw some of those things again, so far removed from the memories I associate with them, with Mona; a mixture of sadness, loss, holding-on, relief. The emotional weight of stuff.

Also, a marvelling at seeing some of this stuff: a very sharp knife, my stereo system and DVDs. Owning DVDs has been rendered a trifle these days, but I like the fact that I can watch The Fifth Element for the 77th time whenever I want, as loud as my ears and bass-thumped torso can stand.

There are so many philosophical aspects to stuff; I'm not going to bother un-cocting this matter any further because we all know this stuff already. Here is a short list of stuff that I claim, by gift, monetary procurement, or common-law possession, as my own:

a console TV that weighs close to 300 lbs.; 3 copies of In Stitches, a film by Mark McAllister; The Jewish Book of Why; a college diploma in leatherette folder; a pair of black leather boots handmade in Chiapas

1 comment:

Laura said...

Liz's SMP presentation last spring made me think about stuff and the way I relate to it. At one point she made a statement about material objects -- something to the effect that they have no actual intrinsic value. It is we who give them meaning, either through the associations we have with them or through our enjoyment of their utility.

It struck a chord with me (bronnngggg!) because most of my stuff comes from somewhere else. Only occasionally have I gotten past the weird guilt feelings I have always had about acquiring "new" things. Apart from sentimental items I associate with lost loved ones, it is somehow easier for me to deal with things when I perceive them as having less monetary value or having more use left in them than others are willing to give them. This is all a part of my "deferred gratification" orientation, which doesn't always work because it leaves the stuff in charge, instead of me.

Another piece of it for me is the idea of holding onto things as a way of trying to recapture something or someone who is lost. I immediately recognized the objects you described from Mona, and I imagine they resonate with you the same way they do with me -- as mementos of the past, and the happy times we spent with her on Rodman Street. Those big Sunday dinners around the table that I now keep in my mother's garage. It is as if the table is some kind of magic, sacred circle; if I get it into the right place, the past will live again, and we'll all be together again the way we were at Mona's. This is a fantasy.

Meanwhile, my mom has a big, flashy dining room table just a few feet away, and ample room for such gatherings. It isn't the same, though. Not even close.