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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

A Packrat Nation

We are rich -- in things, if not in money. The United States is called a "developed country" because the poor people in it are overweight, live in homes with air conditioning, own color TVs, and drive around in cars. Granted, those homes, TV sets and cars may not be the best, but one comparison with any Third World country, or even certain parts of Europe, will show you how good life is for us Americans. Maybe the Canadians are like that, too; I'll have to ask the next time I meet someone from north of the 49th parallel.

What the poor have.

Most of all, while we may hear about the virtues of living like an ascetic, hardly any of us practice that lifestyle. When was the last time you saw someone trying to get by with as few possessions as possible, like Diogenes or Mahatma Gandhi? Jesus did it -- all He had to His name was the homespun woolen robe that He wore all the time -- but aside from monks and nuns, have you ever seen any of His followers do likewise? It may not even be possible in a secular society; that's why so many monasteries and convents are built in remote locations, so that their residents can "get away from it all."

Now even if you consider yourself poor, chances are you've got "stuff," and you've been accumulating it all your life. My wife came to America with all her belongings in three or four suitcases, and when we moved around in central Florida, a few trips with a station wagon allowed us to transport all of her stuff and mine. After that, however, we accumulated enough furniture, books and other possessions that we couldn't have moved out of the Orlando area without a moving van. It's no coincidence that we stayed there until I was hired by a company that was willing to pay my moving expenses. I traveled to Kentucky first, loading my car with everything I could carry. Because I managed to bring all of the stuff I used the most, I think I did all right, but compared with my co-workers and friends, I was living like a monk. In fact, when my pastor saw how bare my apartment was, he took pity on me and donated an old TV set, an easy chair and a patio table. Then when the moving van arrived, we had to move into the house we liked right away, though we would not be ready to buy it for another three months, all because of our stuff (we had to rent it in the meantime). One of these days I'll have to ask my wife how she managed to get by during the week between the day when the moving van left Florida, and the day when she followed. In the process of packing she got rid of a lot of things we no longer needed, due to a weight limit on the moving van. One thing I know for sure--if we move again it will be a bigger challenge than it was before, because we bought most of our current furniture after arriving in Kentucky.

If you're about my age, chances are your life went like this: You didn't have too much stuff when you moved out of your parents' home, either to go to college or to get a dwelling place of your own. When you got married, your spouse's possessions were added to your own (Ever hear the joke about the divorced Barbie doll? She comes with Ken's things!). As you accumulate "stuff" over the years, you become creative at finding ways to store it. When the closet is full, you shove it under the bed. Or you may stack it on the porch (when I did that, I found out the hard way that videocassettes are sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity). Next, you will fill up the garage. Like I said here, only in America do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway, and leave useless things and junk in boxes locked in the garage. If your house has a basement or an attic, you will use them for storage, until you run out of space there. Then you get an outdoor shed and fill it, until it takes hours to get something from the back of the shed, or from the bottom of a pile in one.

You can say you've reached a critical point when you have friends or relatives storing some of your things, or you end up renting storage space somewhere. Only in the USA do we have successful businesses just for the purpose of storing other people's stuff. No doubt about it, our packrat mentality has turned us into a packrat nation. In the end, most of it will get disposed of in an estate sale, when we're no longer around to have a say in what happens to it. That is why some worldly wag once said, "The one who dies with the most toys wins." Yeah, right, like it's going to do you any good if you can't take with you.

Of course, the story doesn't have to end this way. You may give away or throw out things you don't need, or sell some of them at garage sales. You may also sell some things on websites like eBay and CraigsList. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the discpline to do that often enough. No wonder we admire those who can handle the ascetic lifestyle! It is especially a challenge if we once lived in poverty, like those old enough to remember the Great Depression. My parents are an example. We visited their house four times in 2008, and my wife devoted several days to clean out excess books, tapes, papers, clothing, etc., so that we don't have to run an obstacle course, just to get from one room to another.

I've learned from that experience to be careful not to let belongings get out of hand. I don't want the day to come when a stack of my papers is cleared away, and somebody discovers a couch underneath (that really happened to someone I know)! These days I hardly ever buy a book or music album, if I can download the electronic version, so that the only clutter is on my hard drive. For the same reason, I switched from book to CD-ROM encyclopedias as soon as I got a computer that could handle them; one CD sure beat having thirty volumes around, each one big enough to choke a mule.

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