Possessed by Possessions

IN the beginning, news coverage of the Los Angeles earthquake focused on images of gargantuan proportion: huge slabs of concrete jutting from the freeway, balls of orange flames leaping into the sky, and collapsed buildings.

Then reporters fanned out across the city to talk to residents, and these macro scenes turned more and more micro with each passing day. As people sifted through the rubble of damaged or destroyed homes, searching for something - anything - familiar, it became apparent that some of the most touching personal sorrows in this tragedy often involved the smallest and most unassuming items. An old family photo, a great-grandmother's locket, a child's kindergarten artwork - these cherished objects became the most valued possessions, the most cried-over losses.

During the past year or more, Americans have witnessed scenes like these in the wake of natural disasters: first in Florida after Hurricane Andrew, then in the Midwest following last summer's floods, and now in southern California after fires and an earthquake. As they watch these heart-rending dramas unfold from the comfort of warm, dry homes, many sympathetic onlookers undoubtedly see their own possessions in a new light and wonder: What is expendable? What is irreplaceable?

One post-quake columnist in California observed that people who have time to save a few possessions during a disaster tend to grab pets, photographs, and underwear. She mused, ``Maybe we don't need all that much stuff after all.'' She's right, of course, as any traveler living out of a suitcase can attest. At the same time, acquiring ``stuff'' has become a central part of the American dream. Not by chance did the phrases ``consumer culture'' and ``shop-til-you-drop'' originate in the US.

It is the ``stuff'' people acquire, however modest or grand, that defines their style, their taste, their individuality. As owners cart their belongings from address to address - insuring them, cleaning them, repairing them, even occasionally consigning them to the self-storage rental units that now dot suburban landscapes - they are saying: This is who I am. This is what I care about.

But an irony exists. After spending a lifetime acquiring, some collectors reverse the process in retirement. They start de-accessioning, as it were - paring down, passing along favorite objects to children and grandchildren, finding a measure of freedom in shedding and simplifying as they give another generation pleasure in acquiring and collecting.

As Californians face the Humpty-Dumpty task of trying to put broken houses and possessions back together again, some will opt for this kind of simplicity: fewer objects, less of the domestic flotsam and jetsam that can clutter attics and basements and closets. Others, determined to carry on as before, will replace and reacquire with enthusiasm. Already the decisions have begun.

``No more Limoges,'' vows a resident of the Northridge section of Los Angeles, who lost all of the expensive china she and her husband had been collecting for years. It is a sentiment that might be shared by a woman in Sherman Oaks who has tallied losses of $12,000 in crystal and china and $10,000 in Lladro porcelain.

To gather new goods or to dispense with old ones? What consumer doesn't know that dilemma? Half the time one embraces one's possessions. Half the time one feels as if the possessions are weighing down their owner. Does it take an earthquake, a flood, or a hurricane to break apart this ambivalent relationship?

Spring - believe it or not - is coming. It's the season for cleaning attics and staging garage sales, when the loss of possessions is judged a gain and the philosophy of less-is-more wins converts - unless, of course, the seller at this week's yard sale turns into a customer at next week's garage sale down the block.

For the decisions are ongoing. Once upon a time possessions were typically land, houses, barns - what one inherited from one's parents and passed on to one's children. Today possessions are roll-over goods subject to short-term cycles - VCRs, computers, microwaves, automobiles.

To those suffering earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, the losses are shattering in every sense of the word. For the bystander, wondering ``What if it were me?,'' the spectacle of the dispossessed offers a second challenge: What do I need? What do I emphatically not need? The answer to the second question can tell a consumer more about himself than the answer to the first.

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