We Americans have a lot of stuff, and every day we buy even more. But sooner or later, at least some of this stuff has to go. Last year's hot fashion is this year's embarrassment. The bread machine was fun for a while, but now it just gets in the way. That three-year-old computer? Get out of the Stone Age! So it's out with the old to make room for the new.
But here's the quandary: Where do all the rejects go? I'm not talking about trash. The clothes still fit, the toaster oven still toasts, the VCR still plays. Yes, we could slip them into the trash, but that doesn't seem right. There's nothing wrong with these things except that we don't want them anymore.
In our home, neglected or unwanted possessions often end up in household purgatory - the backs of closets, bottoms of drawers, and on attic floors. That can work - for a while. But they inevitably come back to haunt us.
In our case, the day of reckoning arrived several years ago when we sold our home of seven years. We were suddenly visited by all of our long- forgotten purchases: a dust-covered espresso machine, the inevitable set of weights, an old Macintosh computer, and things we kept "just in case." We didn't think of ourselves as pack rats and often railed against consumer culture, but we found ourselves moving from Maryland to Pennsylvania with not one, but two large U-Haul trucks.
Shamed, my wife and I vowed to turn over a new leaf. We would buy only what we really needed and get rid of what we no longer used. Our pledge: Every year we would own incrementally fewer things.
We now live the American dream in reverse. We sell our possessions through classified ads and donate to charities. A good day for me is filling our station wagon with boxes, driving off, and returning empty handed.
But it's not as easy as it sounds. We've discovered that while shoppers are treated like kings and queens, discarders are directed to alleyways, shown to back doors, and sometimes turned away. While shopping is social and recreational, donating often feels more like an illicit act: Back up to the thrift store loading dock, press a buzzer on the locked warehouse door, haul out the boxes, and drive away as fast as possible.
In a disposable society, charities are forced to be choosy. Clothes are always accepted, but high-tech toys are often rejected. It took several calls before we found a charity willing to take a perfectly good computer. New, it had cost $1,000. But it ended up on a shelf next to bagged groceries at a food bank.
I'm pleased the computer will get a new lease on life, but I still drove home feeling that something is out of kilter. My donations are not really an act of charity; they're a way to make things go away. As I add my boxes to the mountain of objects in the storeroom of our local Goodwill, I wonder who is providing the greater service.
Consumption is presented as our right, even as a patriotic act. We celebrate stores filled with goods. But once the novelty of my purchases wears off, I often feel more burdened and dissatisfied. In my heart I know that most of the things I buy will end up in the trash or a Salvation Army sales rack - adding to the huge surplus that is the inevitable, although hidden, part of our society's unprecedented wealth.
Our travels through the underbelly of capitalism have taught us to be more discerning consumers. When we feel the urge to buy, we think about that inevitable trip to the loading dock. We picture that flat-screen TV sitting next to old Atari computers in a charity warehouse - then we move on.
We're still working on emptying our closets and cleaning out the basement, but we've made great strides. Here's the proof: Our most recent move was accomplished in a single, midsized U-Haul. We felt just a little lighter, just a little freer. Next time, I tell my wife, we'll grab a couple of suitcases and leave the rest behind.