How much stuff does a student need?

When I drove to pick my son up at the end of his freshman year at college, I was clearly unprepared. "Do you need help with your stuff?" I asked him.

Alyosha threw out his hands. "Of course," he said. When we got to his dorm room, I almost flipped. The backpack and duffel he had brought with him back in August had somehow expanded into a mountain of personal effects, including two monumental bales of clothing.

"What on earth?" I asked in surprise.

We descended the three floors with the first load. I strained under a heavy, unwieldy sack of laundry, which wrapped itself around me like an enormous marshmallow. "How can clothes weigh so much?" I huffed.

"Oh," my son said, "I didn't have time to use the dryer, so they're still damp."

When we got to the car and put the stuff down, it immediately became apparent to both of us that our challenge would be to somehow pack it all into our small vehicle.

Miraculously, we did so, but the topic of conversation on the long ride home was how one person on a student budget could accumulate so much in such a short time.

I realized that my bias was part of the problem. I have spent years reducing, honing, throwing out, simplifying - with various degrees of success, I'll admit - propelled by an appreciation for Thoreau and an earnest desire to ease the creep of "stuff" in my life.

I live for our town's annual "spring cleaning," when bulk items can be brought to the dump. Tires, old boards, broken tools, scrap metal, pieces of fencing - a cavalcade of clutter destined for sweet oblivion. There are few sights more satisfying than a garage that houses a car and little else.

Alyosha, on the other hand, has as much interest in Thoreau as a cat has in laying eggs. His room is a pack rat's seventh heaven. I had long ago given up on motivating him to jettison just enough of his "things" to create a path for human navigation.

We eventually compromised: He wouldn't throw anything away, but agreed to keep the door closed at all times so I wouldn't have to look at it.

In short, if I am a minimalist, my son must be a maximalist. I have seven shirts in my closet, which get me neatly through a week. Alyosha has 38.

I have one pair of dress shoes and one pair of sneakers. Alyosha has 12 (which I have dubbed "The Imelda Marcos Collection"). He has enough pants and jackets to serve as sails for a four-masted bark.

My toiletry shelf consists of one bottle of after-shave and one stick of deodorant. Alyosha's shelves house bottles and tubes of gels, tonics, balms, sprays, mists, pre-these, and after-thats.

"Why do you need three bottles of hair gel?" I once asked him. My question had the same effect as if I had asked, "Have you ever thought of learning Albanian?" He was astonished. At my ignorance, I suppose.

"They're for different effects," he said. "That's why they're different colors."

Oh.

Despite all of this, I think that Alyosha has the potential for asceticism. Bear with me. Before he took off for college, he realized that his part-time job as a pizza deliverer was not earning him enough to pay for his cellphone, which he then had to give up. Then his car insurance premium came due. He couldn't pay for that either, so he sold the car. He took his bike with him to college, but it was stolen. To his credit, he accepted the loss of these things with grace and a fatalistic insouciance.

The result is that now he is a rather atypical college student: no phone, no car, no bike. And neither an iPod nor a digital camera nor a laptop is on the horizon. And yet he gets around and stays in touch with family and friends. He is, in a word, content.

I made these observations to him over supper recently. "You know, Alyosha," I said, "you're proving that you can actually get by with very little."

He stopped chewing for a moment and smiled. "For a new laptop, I'll get rid of half the clothing in my room," he offered.

Was he playing to my minimalist sensibilities? I'll have to think about it.

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