Friday, November 6, 2009


George Carlin did this classic shtick about stuff:

“…that’s the whole meaning for life, trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is…your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddam stuff you wouldn’t need a house…

That’s all your house is… it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it….that’s all your house is, is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

Now sometimes you gotta move, get a bigger place…why?... too much stuff!

You gotta move all your stuff….and maybe…put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that, there’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on your stuff.”

This bit used to have me in stitches.

Now that I’m a homeowner, husband and father, I’m convinced Stuff conspires to overthrow the benevolent regime my wife and I have attempted to create in our little slice of paradise. Stuff reproduces on its own in the dark recesses of our basement. Gadgets I can’t remember what the heck they do appear and muster in the night. Family dog-related flotsam and jetsam litter the cubbies and forgotten nooks; books gather mournfully in straining shelves; paper accumulates like Kudzu in file cabinets spilling forth like a Stephen King horror fest.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.

Would that there was a zebra mussel, a Golem to vanquish the Stuff.

And this, despite the fact that my wife and I are rabid, insufferable, militant, anti-Stuff-ites. Honestly. We take this anti-Stuff obsession to a new level, at least on the “getting rid of Stuff side of the supply-demand-cleanse equation.” If there was a bulimia for Stuff, we’d have it. We purge on a quarterly basis, but still have too much Stuff. When people come over, they say…”Wow (tension in their voices) your place is nice, minimalist, but nice.”

And yet, Stuff still plots the revolution.

Maybe it’s because we have an infant. I never knew my life was lacking before we had the “Diaper Genie.” Bibs in all colors of the rainbow (“Daddy loves me” “Mommy’s angel” ) manifest pride, succumb universally to toxic spit-up, retire to the basement, and decamp in stages before shipping out on the down-low to the Salvation Army.

Much of this Stuff we didn’t buy—gifts from generous relatives and friends, to whom we generally bear a great and genuine debt. Maybe it’s being a new parent, but I’m amazed that even at four months, our daughter has outgrown so much of what we were given, so quickly. Looking at next year’s tax return documentation, I’m astonished to see we’ve made donations of probably 250+ items already, of all this Stuff…baby Stuff, the year’s accumulated ephemera, Stuff we thought we’d need to live. STUFF.

Carlin’s wisecracking resonates because it reflects in part our collective, cultural obsessive-compulsivity and hoarding; also, in part--recognition of our own consumerist inertia. Carlin implies we buy the house to put our Stuff in. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse; home ownership seems to condemn us to a life consumed by Stuff because we buy in to the conspiracy of consumption.

Stuff to decorate, Stuff to demarcate (our social standing--leather couches required, never mind they’re cold as ice), Stuff to make our lives simpler and more “efficient” (we need those three TVs, gotta have a TV in the kitchen too!...otherwise we’d strain our neck stretching to watch Giada prattling on in the living room while we’re working on dinner in the kitchen).

But we never think about the Stuff. Where it comes from, what the cost is, how much Stuff we really need. In the culminating session of the Citizens Academy, one group member suggested we end by watching a devastating video called “The Story of Stuff.” You can find the video free for download here:

In this video, the lifecycle of stuff--from third world destruction and toxic nightmare, to hidden costs, to packaging excesses, to landfill folly—is charted…pulling no punches. It’s good, really good, and you’ll find it hard to buy another juice box. Unfortunately, it limits much of the power of its suggestions to a near-footnote at the end. But it’s a critical condemnation, not just of stuff, but of our entire way of life.

It is the counter-revolution.

Ironically, soon after I posted an endorsement on Facebook, applauding the video, a friend emailed me to note that even they have a link on their website where you can purchase “The Story of Stuff,” Stuff.

In this round, I concede, it appears Stuff abides.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

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