When I tossed my 1968 J. C. Penney’s Towncraft wool coat, it was older than about half my co-workers. Its brown, blanket-thick fabric had kept me warm for 38 winters. It arrived in my life as I began my freshman year for high school (still to be served in a junior high school), when my mother decided my brother and I needed new coats. We both came home with nearly identical wool coats, cut at the hips, and lined with polyester faux fur. They cost $20. According to the website in2013dollars their purchase price would be $170 or so today. That’s a little difficult to believe, because I know Mom wouldn’t have spent $170 in today’s marketplace to buy me a coat, but not everything remains the same today as it was then. A gallon of gas should cost about $2.90 based on 1968, but I’m paying more than that and only briefly did I see it below $3 at all in the past twelve months.
But back to the coats. In January 2006, more than 37 years later, I threw that coat away. It had hung in our basement, only coming out when I took walks in the woods behind our house, and the coat had developed a green sheen indicating some type of moss which I couldn’t see individually had taken over the wool. I promised my wife I wouldn’t try to save it when we moved south to North Carolina.
I still hear my parents saying you wear clothes until you outgrow them or they wear out. Before I reached 30, I realized I wouldn’t be throwing many clothes away for the latter reason because I just didn’t wear clothes out much for reasons I still don’t understand. Sadly, I do outgrow them still, but these days it has to do with an expanding waistline. I absolutely love buying clothes. The fact that they will take years to wear out frustrates the consummation of that desire. I prod myself to ‘just give them away–if they don’t bring joy…’ but it’s a lost cause. Most of them still bring joy. A few bring sweet pain:
- There’s a wool Pendleton wool shirt I just took off two days ago. My father wore it in the last years before he died at the end of 2013. The shirt shows absolutely no wear, and I would bequeath it to my son except I don’t have one. I’ve donated most of the shirts I took from his closet, but a fleece pullover remains for reasons which elude me: I dislike it and wear it little, thus ensuring it will be good enough to bury me in, or at least keep me warm in the nursing home.
- Look up at my avatar photo. Though difficult to see, I’m wearing a robin’s-egg blue sweater. The photo was taken at Christmas 2009. There are several other sweaters in my closet purchased at the same time, since I tend to buy several things at once but only once or twice a year.
- Yesterday I wore a pair of sneakers which I distinctly remember purchasing when we lived in New York. We left New York in January 2006 as mentioned above.
- I’ve lucked out more with t-shirts. The oldest one (I think) appears to be one purchased while on vacation in Boone, NC. We took that vacation in May 2013. The T-shirt looks fine; I’m sure it has years ahead of it given that I’ll only wear it in certain circumstances because it’s not 100% cotton, and I dislike such shirts. (“Why don’t you throw it or donate it?” “Because…”)
In the room two doors down from this office, a leaf-green down jacket is draped over a plastic lawn chair. I purchased three items in the summer of 1972 to keep me warm while camping in the Rocky Mountains. Recently graduated from high school, I had never camped in my life, and in the fall of that year I would enroll at the University of Montana in a program featuring frequent camping trips. My new advisor recommended two things for camping: a down jacket and a wool sweater. More precisely, he recommended buying two wool sweaters at Goodwill, cutting the bottom six-to-eight inches off of one and sewing them on to the other to make a wool tunic. I bought the jacket and the two sweaters as directed, paying $1.99 for one sweater and 99-cents for a second. My mother made the necessary alterations. (The more expensive sweater fell to her shears.) When camping ended a year later, I removed the add-on, and kept the 99-cent sweater until it joined the mossy wool coat from 1968 in the commercial dumpster in my front driveway. Mostly I tossed it to appease my wife, but I admitted to myself that the high neck on the coarse wool sweater irritated my skin. The green down jacket sports a two-inch square of green plastic tape on one elbow where a spark from a campfire fell and melted a hole. It’s the original tape from 40 years ago. I wore the jacket just a few weeks ago during a cold snap when temps lived in the teens and twenties.
I’ll toss expired food as if it insulted my mother. I’ll throw away half of our Christmas decorations because I don’t like putting it all up in early December only to take it down as January begins. I once sold off virtually every piece of furniture from a 4000 square foot house prior to a cross-country move. I don’t hoard in general; I hoard specifically. To wit:
- While working in New York I picked up the habit of using scratch paper for most computer printouts. From that point forward I routinely brought home scratch paper from work once I moved to North Carolina at the beginning of 2006. I still run across paper from those years. We’ve moved three times since then.
- I recently forced myself to ‘designate for assignment’ most of the old computers I’ve clung to. Those which remain able to perform at an acceptable speed sit around waiting for a purpose in their sad little electronic lives. Until I joined the ranks of music streamers a year ago, an old laptop from 2012 sat on my downstairs bar to serve up our digitized music. Though it’s slipped into retirement again, it sits on the bar still. Perhaps it will become a photo display.
- But for a divorce, I would still own a Yamaha amplifier and its matching cassette tape deck, purchased in 1986. (Well, not the latter. I’ve not needed a cassette deck for a decade.) I still cart around the Boston Acoustic speakers which they powered; these speakers were in use through 2009 when I discovered the woofer in one had shredded. I still plan to fix it, more than a dozen years later.
I want to think my distinction involves the usefulness for the tools in my life: the clothes which keep me warm, the computers which enable me to work and communicate, the audio/video equipment which entertains me. If so, how to explain all the memorabilia, the extensive library, the suits I will never fit into again, or, frankly, the pool table which came with the house and hasn’t heard the crack of a cue stick on the white cue ball in years? Perhaps the memorabilia serves as a tool for memory, and I can rationalize the books because every few months I want to look something up in them, but the suits? The pool table?
We’re all biologic collections at war with ourselves: laziness versus industriousness versus mindfulness versus purpose; emotion versus analytical thinking versus empathy versus pragmatism; habit versus creativity versus spontaneity versus thoughtful planning; childlike wonder versus mature knowledge versus arrogant authority. Those things around us, be they physical or metaphysical, play the part of a charcoal rubbing of our psyches, of who we are. I’m going to look a bit more closely at this “stuff”. It seems to want to tell me something.