How did this happen?

I’ve been in a mood to purge excess belongings lately. That seems to be part of my natural annual cycle — after the acquisitiveness of the holiday gift-giving season, I often decide it’s time to clear out some of the old stuff.

But this year that instigation is compounded by my helping a family member move from a full sized house into a senior apartment. He is physically unable to go through his stuff himself, so I’ve been helping to sort out some of his possessions. It’s easier to be an objective judge of things I don’t own, so I’ve seen that his pack rat instincts have filled his house and garage with things that have little or no value.

When I get home, I realize the same thing about most of my junk. So I’ve been clearing out a few things and resolving to get even more out of the way.

Is there anyone in the U.S. who doesn’t have an excess of junk? I somehow doubt it. Even those who are grindingly poor seem to be bound to things that do not help them to live better or more comfortably.

I suspect the changing nature of “stuff” has something to do with the problem. In earlier generations, almost anything we could possess had some residual value even when it no longer met its original purpose. For instance, an ax head can be given a new handle and used indefinitely. A wooden building can be torn down and the wood used for another structure, or a box, or even firewood.

Our parents and grandparents knew hardship, so they learned to hang onto anything, and in many cases, everything. I remember that among my grandparents and parents generation, a household or farm project started with a rummage through the place to find old materials that could be used. A trip to the hardware store or lumber yard came only as a last resort. The same thing applied to clothes. Grandma bought fabric only if she couldn’t find any that could be re-sewn.

Most of us inherited that spirit, so we are reluctant to let go of our things. But how do you reuse a broken electric can opener or an old television? Modern things were engineered to be thrown away, not reused. What can you make out of old plastic?(Maybe new plastic, but don’t try that at home!) Ever try to reclaim the wood out of an old console TV? (I have. Most of them were made of very cheap veneers that only look substantial. It’s even dangerous to try to use them for firewood, old glues and finishes being as toxic as they are.)

So part of becoming frugal in the 21st century seems to call for resistance to buying rather than saving everything you ever bought. “Don’t buy it if you don’t really need it, and try to buy only things that have more than one use.”

I thought I had invented that idea. But the other day, I was looking through our 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking, and found this:

“A man once summed up his wife’s life with the epitaph, ‘She died of things.’ It might have happened to any of us. We are constantly encouraged to buy the latest gadget…. No kitchen can ever have enough space at convenient levels to take care of even a normal array of equipment. So think hard before you buy so much as an extra skewer.”

Oh, well. One of the benefits of living to my age is that we forget where our thoughts came from, so we can take credit for original thinking.

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