This Is Why I Can’t Have Nice Things
Recently I bought a $200 pair of designer snowpants. Seriously. I know. Totally not like me, right? As I have written before, most of the stuff I own has been acquired through very frugal means (head nod to dumpster diving here). So what’s behind the recent splurge?
Though I do have a penchant for acquiring things that are pre-loved and homely, I do also have a rabid lust for things that are new and nice. This lust compels me to page through catalogs of beautiful objects and to browse through websites staring at all the enticing images of attractive things. Psychologists are right when they explain how buying things releases a flood of endorphins in the brain, those feel-good brain chemicals. For the most part, the objects of my desire run the gamut of fancy outdoor gear designed for outdoor enthusiasts. As an outdoor industry professional, outdoor gear is at the top of the list of things I pine after, and surely is also the most expensive stuff I desire to acquire. I can easily spend hours in any outdoor sports store mindlessly meandering through all the aisles and tactilely handling all of the gear with imaginations of future adventures running through my mind.
Of all the people who buy expensive items like this, I’d like to think that I’m in the upper-half of the bell curve who actually put this stuff to use. I frequent the outdoors for my job, plus my wild recreation time puts extreme wear-and-tear on my gear. Thus, whatever I buy doesn’t end up just sitting unused in an attic. I put this stuff through the wringer and then some. Just ask my old pair of snowpants: acquired used in a swap with a friend four years ago, they were used and abused until they ended up in their present state full of ember holes, small rips and tears, medium holes patched over with nylon or duct-tape, long rips in the material or at the seams that have been stitched back together multiple times, and the more generalized state of well-worn abrasion. Any other person would have given up on that pair of pants ages ago, yet I kept mending them contrary to my naysayers. And I didn’t even spend any money to acquire those snowpants either—I simply traded an extra bike-pump for them! If I do take that much care of my gear that costs me nothing, then how much more might I value the things that cost a pretty penny. Hence, why I decided to drop so much money on a single pair of snowpants. If the quality of the brand holds up, then I should be wearing that pair of snowpants for a decade at the very least. If you think about it economically averaged, in ten years the annual cost of those snowpants would be only $20. That’s a pretty reasonable investment indeed.
And it’s an investment that I feel is not only admissible but also justifiable. It’s not a sin to own nice things if you take good care of them and use them well. After all, the stuff that I do own I take splendid care of, whether I bought it at full price or pulled it out of a dumpster. And I don’t consume much in the way of new things, either; I will constantly mend and repair the things I own until they are no longer useful. When it comes to actually purchasing new things, I’m a very reluctant consumer, to say the least.
But there is a lot of baggage with owning nice things, and that just doesn’t account for the expense of having to take care of those items. The nice things that I so frequently lust after—those designer snowpants, those fancy outdoor clothes—they project a status symbol, and one that I am not entirely at ease with bearing. Designer outdoor clothes from the major brands are expensive, and are in fact purveyors of status and privilege. I myself am unconsciously brand-conscious, even though I don’t try to be. Other people I interact with are also brand-conscious, and wearing such brands feeds into their perceptions who I am as a person. As an outdoor professional, I should feel like I have permission to wear such clothes with impunity. Especially since, as an outdoor professional, I basically get 40% off retail price on virtually anything with industry pro-deals, on top of my good nose for bargains. But the average, everyday person I meet doesn’t know this about me. They don’t know that I can buy my clothes at a deep discount. To them, it all looks the same, and in a sense it is. The premium you pay at the cash register is not for the garment quality, but for the label. Wearing those brands, I appear as someone who was willing to pay the premium for the status of the label.
I’ve wrestled with this question of brand-image for quite a long time. I didn’t wear designer outdoor brands growing up, though they were quite popular among my high school and college classmates. I, too, lusted for the status that wearing such brands represented. Yet at the same time, I also felt uncomfortable with that status. I was too conscientious of all the baggage.
After many years of deliberation, I finally caved in and bought myself a garment. It was a very nice green Patagonia fleece, comfortable, durable, beautiful. But it also came at a hefty price tag. Being my first piece of outdoor designer clothing, I was very nervous about wearing it. My friends would see it and would notice the change in attire. They would make comments. I would feel uncomfortable with all the attention. It would feel as if I had started walking around with a giant hickey on my neck—an incriminating mark as to my underlying behavior and values.
But that was four years ago. I still have that green Patagonia fleece, and it still is my most frequently worn item of clothing. Sticking to the intentions I had when I purchased it, I aim to get at least another six years of heavy use from it to make the purchase justifiable. And since that day it still has been the only piece of outdoor designer clothing which I had purchased for myself, until the snowpants. I still am conscious of the impression I give off on people when they see the brands I wear. But the few holes and increasingly pilly texture of my fleece are things I am proud of—signs that I have been putting my clothing to use in the manner it was designed—in the rugged outdoors. The wear and tear, especially on my nice outdoor clothing, gives the purchase of the item some more credibility and eases the conscious just a little.
But still, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with these items and the image it presents of myself. Wearing Patagonia and the like brands are hallmarks of the affluent white culture. By purchasing and wearing such garments, I am making a statement that I am part of that culture. But what about relating to other people, from different, less affluent cultures? Is the clothing one wears a barrier to connecting and empathizing with the less fortunate? Especially those who can’t afford a pair of pants, let alone a pair of $200 snowpants?
As you can see, I enjoy owning nice things, but sometimes I wonder if I can afford to live with the baggage such privilege comes with.
Leaving a Paper Trail
In my room, hidden way back in a drawer behind some inconspicuous items of clothing, I keep a few shoeboxes full of a spattering of mementos: old ticket stubs, tattered maps, random photographs, past letters, and much of the standard sentimental bric-a-brac. It’s a collection of worthless trinkets and scraps of paper, mostly. The contents of my box are all items I have collected here and there over time, relating to things I have done or places I have visited. I keep them because they remind me of all the inputs that have gone into my personal development.
This habit of mine was started earnestly in college, as I was beginning to collect all these new ideas and experiences through the course of my formal education. I desired a way to keep track of what I had been part of, and thus the genesis of the shoebox receptacle. Summer internships followed college semesters, and my collection continued to grow. Graduate school saw the start of my second shoebox. Souvenirs from rambling travels and post-graduate jobs are now filling up a third.
It’s not often I go back and look through these shoeboxes. Mostly they just wait in silence, ignored by their own creator. But sometimes I do go back. Sometimes I remember something small—a scrap or a brochure—that I stowed away in there and will rummage around in search of it. Oftentimes in the search I will get sidetracked, mesmerized by little tokens I had once set aside and had since forgotten. I’ll sit and reminisce for a spell. These little tokens in the box help remind me about what has shaped me.
I feel much the same way about my journals as I do my shoeboxes. I have kept a semi-regular journaling habit ever since graduating from high school, an anthology of thoughts and words instead of a collection of paper bits. Often I don’t look back at what I had written either. Most of it no longer concerns me. But I still cherish my journals dearly, and would feel deeply grieved if they were lost. And, when I do look back into the archives of my old entries, I am able to see myself at a different stage in life. It’s a personal historical record found nowhere else. It is often helpful to remind ourselves of who we once were in order to see who we are becoming.
I think of my shoeboxes full of keepsakes and my journal compilations collectively as my ‘paper trail.’ They are the acquired evidence of the life I have lived. While in other aspects of my life I tend to be reserved and cloistered out of a penchant for privacy, I have been very intentional about maintaining my paper trail evidence. However, I don’t show anyone my paper trail—at least I haven’t yet. They exist for my own perusal only. Though it is a collection of intentionally kept evidence, it is evidence that is not ready to be released to inquisitive eyes.
Yet, I don’t anticipate this always being the case. Call it conceited, but I live with the background imagination running through my mind of being important enough that a biographer will one day write the story of my life. From what I have read about the lives of my personal heroes, most of them left a lot of traces of their passing in life—even the most enigmatic of the bunch. I want to be kind to my future biographer by leaving them this paper trail, this life-long collection of scraps that leads them to discover insights about who I was as a person and how I got to be there.
My shoeboxes slowly continue to fill and my completed journals gradually pile up. My secretive paper trail gets cumulatively larger as I build this life for myself. I am quite fond of my paper trail. Do you have one of your own?
What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used To Visit Every Summer Afternoon
Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.
Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?
Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.
Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.
And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other cleverly-named days which promote consumer spending behind us, the holiday shopping season is well on its way once again. The lure of irresistible deals and the culture of acquiring the latest fads spur us to accumulate endlessly more and more stuff. I myself have had stuff on my mind lately, though it’s not because of an inclination towards holiday shopping. Rather, ending one out-of-state job recently and preparing to re-locate to another has got me sorting through all my stuff in preparation. And with my parents moving houses in the past few months as well, I’m coming home to all my possessions haphazardly boxed up and scattered about. It’s been a time to re-analyze all that I consider ‘mine.’
As I’ve been sorting through my possessions, I’ve begun to pause and go through them more deliberately. When I’ve been away working my various seasonal jobs, I’ve always kept my possessions to a few duffle bags, or a comfortable car-load at the very most. But, I’ve realized, I have a lot more stuff that I’ve left behind—stuff I own and keep, though I don’t actively use it or even remember I own it. Actually, going through my possessions again, it surprised me the sheer amount of objects I could say are still in my possession—even though I like to think of myself as a minimalist. I always enjoy considering how light a packer I am, and how well I can improvise using the few possessions I do have. But I also know I am a collector of things, a pack-rat as some may call it, and I have acquired a considerable amount during my time on earth. Though I may decry the negative rampages of American imperial consumerism, I too am complicit in the lust and greed to acquire more. I too see things I would like to have, and take steps to ensure that I acquire them and keep them solidly in my possession. The primal urge to accrete does not leave easy.
And now, I’ve found myself in this more reflective situation, as I go through my many possessions box by box. I do tend to be quite utilitarian in my philosophy of things, viewing objects as tools to be used in life, caring mostly about function over form. But even though I concern myself with the practical value of items, I also feel strongly that things should not be treated with careless indignation, as though they were simply disposable without consequence. Utility also means looking to gain the maximum use and value out of every single object I possess, to use and wear things out until they are no more. If each object has a purpose, then each object also has a value. The things I’ve found myself to be holding on to are things that still have some sort of value left—practical, sentimental—and most likely only I could see the value in maintaining these things indefinitely.
As I open each box to rediscover what had been placed inside long ago, I take out each object and cradle it in my hands slowly, reverently. These are merely things, but they connote more than that—they have stories of mine interwoven in them. They have the stories of how I acquired them, of how I used them, and—having made the decision to keep them around—they hold some aspiration for the future as well. Holding each object, I try and recollect as much as I can about it. It may help that I have a particularly detailed memory, but I can often recall when and where I acquired each object, and the circumstances of my acquirement. Everything I find are artifacts of myself, intricately connected to my history of being. I amuse myself by speculating far off into they future, imagining that I have had a long and famous life and that upon my passing my possessions are being sorted by museum staff for a curated display of my life. So many of these objects I hold, rather than having a monetary value, have something much more priceless. Airline boarding passes, concert tickets, maps of places I’ve traveled. Yes, so many of these objects, rather than carrying a practical value, hold an emotional, sentimental value. They are relics of my past, reminding me of where I have been but also hinting at the trajectory I am going down.
Though mindless consumerism disheartens me, I remain quite ambivalent about the acquirement of stuff, on one hand cherishing what I own but on the other hand feeling the imperative to make do with less. Having been of modest means through most of my adult life, my metabolism for objects has been slower than most. Few objects, a minority I would conjecture, I have actually purchased for myself with money. The objects which I do own came from other means: trades and barters, unclaimed remnants of lost and found boxes, things pulled from the trash, participation prizes, gifts from friends. My boxes of things are filled with second-hand clothes, book-exchange finds, and rocks which I have collected during my travels. I am an opportunist in my acquiring of things, and usually it is not the object itself that is important, but the use it presents. So long as the object is useful to me, even if just for memories sake, then I will adopt it into my litany of things.
The fact that I can recall so much information about my history with these objects proves just how much emotional weight these things have on me. For now, I do not find it a burden; I have enough memory space available to justly devote to each object. But as I continue to acquire, and file more and more things into the repository boxes in my parent’s basement, I wonder how long this will still last. You see, whenever I make the decision to adopt an object, I gain the burden of seeing that object to the end of its natural life or re-homing it to another possessor. Once I acquire something too, it is incredibly difficult to part with it, to imagine no longer being in control of it. I am very glad to have avoided the worst of the lures of American consumerism with its throw-away mentality and the lust for more and more. But I also wonder: might I feel freer with less stuff, with more time to devote to this grand organic world which I love?
When I moved from one house to another
there were many things I had no room
for. What does one do? I rented a storage
space. And filled it. Years passed.
Occasionally I went there and looked in,
but nothing happened, not a single
twinge of the heart.
As I grew older the things I cared
about grew fewer, but were more
important. So one day I undid the lock
and called the trash man. He took
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing — the reason they can fly.