November 28, 2012

What Is All This Crap?

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I babysit a fourth grader every few weeks. He is sharp and sarcastic, almost always an endlessly entertaining, refreshing change of pace. Last week, when his dad came home, he mentioned his disappointment with our school store. I took a visit after Thanksgiving break.

My brief walk through the Cornell Store was somewhat nauseating. I understand and appreciate school spirit, but this is a collection of useless knick knacks and crap — the stuff that creates waste, fills homes and excites packrats — with a Cornell emblem on it. A nutcracker with “CU” on its booties, a stuffed bear with a big red t-shirt, a Cornell gnome. Alongside the Cornell paraphernalia lies mountains of stuff —  jewelry reminiscent of 5th grade holiday shopping days, plaques with inspirational quotes, charm bracelets, pashminas — the list goes on. I could write an article about our school store’s identity crisis — about why a place that is supposed to provide us with books, school supplies and some Cornell gear has become a strange treasure chest of somewhat useless items, but that’s a story for another day. Right now, I want to focus on the much coveted and celebrated holiday season, which is now upon us.

I find this time of year fascinating: We spend one day being grateful and the next trampling neighbors for discounts at big box stores. The dichotomy between appreciation and desire is surely an interesting one. Our stress on stuff — from secret Santa to familial gift giving — is troublesome and our environments, even seemingly innocuous ones like a school store, seem to perpetuate the culture of acquiring more. The gift-giving season is an opportune time for self reflection and contemplation of our ingrained seasonal habits and norms.

Going home for Thanksgiving, I returned to my childhood bedroom, which surprisingly, is still full. In Ithaca, my room contains pretty much everything I need (and more). But then I go home to a museum of stuff from an earlier time: fourth grade t-shirts and high school memorabilia along with books and awards and pictures. The funny thing is that I don’t consider myself to be particularly materialistic or stuff-obsessed. I think of myself to be relatively simple: to want and keep things that have utility. And even so, I have countless doohickeys from vacations past along with birthday gifts that sit around — unopened, untouched, useless. This isn’t a new revelation, obviously. We live in a country where an entire business empire is established to give you boxes to keep your crap in (think The Container Store), where we have “professional organizers” and reality series, like TLC’s Clean Sweep about de-cluttering.

As we begin giving things to the people we love, why not consider utility or longevity? Perhaps giving an experience (a massage, an afternoon kayaking, a concert ticket) will prove more meaningful. If you insist on giving something to someone, perhaps ask yourself: What is this and will they actually use it? And this break, if you’re at home, maybe take one day in our six week vacation to excavate your room and purge yourself of all the “extra” things you have. If you haven’t worn that t-shirt in five years, maybe it’s time to give it away. And although Nancy Drew was your favorite in elementary school, maybe some other child could enjoy the beauty of reading. This is about sustainability, this is about your psyche, this is about having less quantity and more quality. Maybe if we had less stuff overall, we’d treat it with a bit more respect and value.

A New York Times article, “You Probably Have Too Much Stuff” spoke about this very phenomenon. The piece mentioned Andrew Hyde, who began a trip around the world by downsizing his possessions to just 15. On his blog, Hyde explains: “I’m so confused by this. When we were growing up, didn’t we all have the goal of a huge house full of things? I found a far more quality life by rejecting things as a gauge of success.” It’s not necessarily about downsizing so drastically. But such an example can motivate action from the masses. Have you gone through your closet? What about your desk and your bookshelf? The same Times article recommends asking the question, “Do I have room—physical, emotional, mental—to bring one more thing into my life?”

My friend Max shared a story of his friend’s “study abroad” experience living in the Adirondacks. Before starting the program, participants were given a challenge to bring only 100 items. That’s not a lot. This isn’t a new movement, though. In 2008, Times Magazine ran an article all about the “100 Thing Challenge.” Personally, I counted the things on my bookshelf and got to almost 100 — and that’s counting folders and their contents as one item. If you think about even college homes, this is a radical concept. Each fork and hanger counts, as do all those other peripheral possessions we don’t even think about or challenge. So perhaps 100 is infeasible for you.

But maybe 1,000 is possible. There are other means: owning only things you use daily, making a timeline of purging. Another way to look at it is that you should only own what would fit in one carload. Whether you choose to make that a mini Coop or a Hummer is your choice. If you only ride a bicycle or the TCAT, good luck. It’s not really as much about logistics as it is about awareness.

And it’s not just about what’s in your room or house. It’s about how you look at getting new things. So the next time you find yourself with an SAFC form, perhaps consider if you can get that folding table from somewhere else (like a ReUse store) or if it’s really integral to your cause to acquire that particular item.

College is a nomadic time. Every six to ten months, we pack up our things to relocate, whether it be from Ithaca to home, or to a new apartment just a few blocks away, or to another hemisphere for a semester. We are in constant motion. We are always moving in to new places and acquiring stuff to make them homes. This might be the ideal time to reconsider what you own and what you actually need.

Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture, and planning. She may be reacched at kathanasiou@cornellsun.com. Kat’s Cradle runs alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou

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