Wednesday, 7 February, 2007
Confessions of a Collector
Hello. My name is Greg, and I collect things. This is not, by any stretch of thought, a brag out of vanity, but rather, a simple confession, likely in vain. Collecting has become an addiction. If one is good, more than one is better, and many are better still. It’s more than a simple dysfunction. It’s like a retrovirus that has integrated itself permanently into my DNA, expressing itself at will by causing me to fill my world with stuff. So far, there seems to be no cure. Maybe I’ll try intervention. They say confession is good for the soul, but I can probably figure out a way to collect those, too, written on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper that will be filed in one of the many shoe boxes I’ve collected for just such a purpose.
Anatole France wrote, “That which distinguishes man from animals is lying and literature.” I’d like to add collecting things to that short list. Sure, there are the odd birds or rodents that gather things, taking them back to their nests, perhaps even taking some pride in their shiny new possessions, but only man does this volitionally, seeking out fellow collectors, befriending them, then taunting them with their newest acquisitions. My friend George, bedeviled by something of the same disease, and with whom I’ve sometimes engaged in this endless duel of desire, likens this taunting to the behavior of “Two drunks in the parking lot, launching haymakers at each other,” the sort of fusillade where neither, “Comes within a foot of connecting, and they keep falling over from losing their balance.”
Thanks, George. It’s the losing balance part that caught my attention, and not just metaphorically. This morning, I fell over some of the not-yet-organized stuff, and bonked my head, briefly knocking some sense into myself; I have to do something about this stuff. I’ll confess.
“What’s the big deal?” echoes the cry from legions of the afflicted. “Lots of people collect things.” Right. Stamp collectors have shelves of neatly organized volumes, each containing their precious acquisitions, ordered by country, by year, or sometimes by subject. Coin collectors, I suspect, have some similar method of arranging the objects of their passion so that it makes some sense. I envy these people their specialties, and their meticulous, Swiss watch sense of order. Me? I’m more of a generalist. I collect collections. I bring new meaning to the colloquial expression, “collecting dust.”
Humorist George Carlin once discussed the natural impulse for people to collect “stuff.” We buy homes, fill them to overflowing with stuff, then move into larger containers. In a slightly paranoid Pacino moment, I think, “You talkin’ to me, George? I don’t see anyone else around here. You talkin’ to me?” We, collectors, attempt to balance our budgets so that the sum we spend on our containers still leaves sufficient “discretionary income” to fill them sufficiently. Then, we look for better jobs with higher incomes, in preparation for the next iteration, like the instructions on the shampoo bottle. Collect, move, repeat.
Ay, there’s the rub. When stuff reaches something of a critical mass, large enough to trip over, the organization of it requires more stuff. We need boxes for things, shelves for the boxes, rooms for the shelves, buildings for the rooms…
I’ve got books, for example, all over the place. Many of them have been read, but I continue to believe I need to keep them around. I might want to read them again. I might want to share them with someone else. I might want to, some day in the future, find some little tidbit that I thought meaningful when I read it. (That I would never actually be able to find that tidbit doesn’t seem to come into consideration, except for those brief moments of lucidity, like this one, and I’m sure I’ll forget it before reaching the end of this.)
Others, I’m in the process of reading. (Don’t even ask about the accumulated hours lost while trying to figure out which of the books in which of those stacks will be the one I pick up on the way to the reading chair, or the loo, beside which several others already sit, also waiting to be finished.)
I’ve got bookshelves filled to overflowing, and boxes of books, and stacks of books. There are books in every corner of every room. I pay money for a storage lockup, filled, largely, with boxes of books. And, that’s just the books.
I need to write things often, and I like writing with fountain pens. In fact, I don’t use anything else, unless forced to by necessity, like filling out multi-part forms, or when I can’t find a fountain pen because they’re all hidden under other stuff. Naturally, I have more than one. I’d count them, but that would require finding them all, and doing that so soon after bonking my head (I’m still a little fuzzy from that) would put my body in peril of falling over something else. This isn’t about pens, though, or books. They’re just two examples ouf of many of things that overwhelm the space around me. It could just as well be pocket knives, time pieces, pipes, electric guitars, sliderules, photographic equipment. Oh, wait. It is all those things. This is worse than I thought.
I like to think that my habit for acquiring derives from a deep appreciation of the things I gather. Each is unique. Each has its own character, it’s own beauty. How can I get rid of any one of them, without somehow deprecating the “collection.” Justification is sometimes its own crippling reward.
The real truth, though, is something quite different. I hoard things, like a squirrel stashing nuts for the winter. This probably stems more from a latent fear of scarcity than an overt desire for abundance, though these are arguably two faces of the same coin. If I get rid of the things that I’ve acquired, I might never be able to acquire them again, right?
There’s nothing really new or truly revelatory embedded within this self-seemingly brilliant ray of illumination. In fact, it’s pretty damned obvious, even to one so blinded by the burden as I am. But, in this light, I can resolve to free myself of the shackles of possessions, at least some of them, and know that I’d live a simpler, more peaceful life, closer to a state of samadhi without the big bag of rocks on my back. I’ve done it before – made that resolution. It works for a couple days, or a week or two, and then, some shiny little trinket sparks my interest, drawing me to it like a raven to a wristwatch, and the cycle begins anew, casting me back into the comfortable shadows of my Acquisition Disorder. I’m convinced it’s a form of OCD, and that medical science should work hard to develop psych-drugs to combat it – some sort of selective possession re-uptake inhibitor. (I want royalties on that one, or at least a seat in the experimental group.)
Barring this medical miracle, I may be doomed to live with the disease as best I can. Sometimes, I feel a bit like the eccentric Arthur Lidz in the film, Unstrung Heroes. One day, I will simply disappear, only to be discovered years later, after a protracted excavation of what was once my home, my desiccated corpse found under piles of the stuff of my prior existence. Cause of death? Complications of collecting.
Now, I must close. My eye just fell upon a nice little piece of aluminum foil that will be the perfect addition to that large ball of the stuff I’ve been building for a few years. You never know what it’ll come in handy, and I don’t know anyone else who has one.