Is there fulfillment in stuff collection?

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I was in Spokane one day this past week helping my son pack up his dorm room for the summer. Adam is now a sophomore at Gonzaga University majoring in Afternoon Classes. That’s not as bad as it sounds. In another year, I’ll have a second child in college who quite possibly may be studying Advanced Tanning and Quantum Shopping Mechanics.

I hadn’t seen Adam’s dorm room since early in the school year. Back then, it was relatively clean and clutter free, by which I mean I could see the floor. Now, not so much. If simplicity is the outward sign and symbol of depth of thought, then I shudder to think about what has been flowing through Adam’s room these past months. Evidently he and his roommate have been very busy conducting a sophisticated experiment in seeing how much stuff two young men can accumulate in the span of a school year. The results of that experiment were, for the most part, presented for inspection to lucky visitors to their dorm/science lab in seemingly random piles on the floor of their room.

At the risk of setting behavioral science back a few decades, I took a couple truck loads of their accumulated stuff to one of those mini-storage facilities for the summer. They will be able to easily retrieve it when school starts next year, thereby giving them a significant leg up on next year’s Applied Accumulation Studies.

I couldn’t help but recall that, when I moved out of my dorm room back when I was in college, I was able to load every single thing I owned in the world into a Volkswagen Beetle with room left over for a girlfriend or a computer if I had had either of them, which I didn’t. And two-thirds of the space I did use was taken up by my stereo speakers and record album collection. (To those of you who may be under 30, assuming that I am not here addressing a null set, a “record” or “album” was a primitive sound-recording device that ancient Americans used before the invention of the iPod. Think of them as the larval stage of a CD).

I don’t mean to sound older and more crotchety than I really am (and I am plenty of both), but at what point did our society get off track and become all about accumulating stuff? I think most of us would agree that we have more stuff than we really need to live reasonably happy and productive and satisfied lives, and that having a smaller iPod or a thinner laptop or a zestier version of Nacho Cheese Doritos will not add appreciably to the quality of our lives.

There must have been some time back in the dim mists of antiquity (you know, like before 1970) when the stuff that the manufacturers of the world produced were mainly or exclusively the kind of things that people needed to get by, products and services that satisfied basic human needs. But it seems like now so much of the stuff we all acquire is not intended to fulfill any such basic human needs, but rather is manufactured and marketed with the express hope and purpose of creating a need for the product where none previously existed. At some point, we all, or many of us anyway, have become Apostles at the Altar of the Gospel of Consumption. That Gospel is founded on the firm belief that no matter how much stuff you may have at any one point in your life, it’s not enough, and there is always newer and better stuff out there that you need to have if only you knew you needed it.

I don’t mean to disparage my son and his roommate for the condition of their dorm room. College freshmen are not a demographic known for their sophisticated and rigorous housekeeping skills. Messy dorm rooms hold a hallowed place within the canon of collegiate apocrypha. Nor do I mean to imply that, back in the day, I myself was exceptionally blessed or proficient in the art of Dorm Roomular Cleanliness. The important thing is that we got Adam moved out of his dorm room for the summer and back into his old bedroom at home, a room which, by the way, he should feel particularly comfortable in since it remains largely occupied by the vast quantities of stuff he acquired and left behind in his previous life as a high school student. In the circle of life, run you slow or fast, all floor space must be filled up at last.

Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney

for the Trust for Public Land. He is author

of “Skeletons From Our Closet,”

a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.

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