Tuesday, August 19

Are you your stuff?

Since getting cable after over a decade without, I'm fascinated by a show on the Style Network called "Clean House." Clean House shows people who can't walk around their house because they are literally knee-deep in clutter.

The show's staff deals in a very pseudo psychological way with their issues, sells all their shit in a yard sale, and redesigns a new house for them.

But the problem is, people whose houses have seven sofas in the living room on top of the other, and that's really the way some of these houses are, (like the guy with four decades of newspapers in his apartment) these people have ISSUES. These are people in emotional crisis, and the show acknowledges that as much as they can in sixty minutes with commercials.

What I find fascinating is, often...the issue is...somebody DIED.

That's it.

Somebody DIED. (and look, this embed starts with a commercial, go figure!)

And the people in these houses walk around mazes four feet deep because they can't cope, won't deal, or forbid themselves to throw away ANYTHING that belonged to that person.

The worst case was one woman, I swear, who kept the mangled license plate of the car that crashed and killed her husband. And her walls were wallpapered with pictures of him. For years.

She had no other way to grieve.

So this show gets me thinking that our society teaches us all forever that we are what we BUY. So when someone dies it's all we can do to preserve that person's memory is keep the extra furniture. It's like these people have never heard of a thrift store truck. The show, I suppose, is exploitative; well, except that the family usually knows something is wrong and calls the show. They get new furniture...it's "queen for a day" redux, and someone takes part of the responsibility for throwing out stuff. They get useful help organizing. They have professional help for that, with lots of free advertising for The Container Store.

As one commenter at Salon said, the network exploits their madness but dresses it up to look like therapy. And the people are happier in the end, because they HAD to get rid of Granny's sofabed. For the show. FOR THE SHOW.

Which is what makes me go ick. 15 minutes of shame/fame, to show the world what a slob you were. And that some one else made you a nice home out of brand new furniture made in China because you finally coped with your grief.

And your house and therefore your life is all better in a 60 minute time slot.

So this post is not about reorganizing your house, but about death and loss and how we deal with it. Are we our stuff?

Since I divorced this spring, and moved out of a house that was NEVER mine, and into my own house with my own stuff, I have to confess that it's much more my home. But I would be horrified if someone decided after my demise to keep all my books/yarn/knicknacks and add my stuff to their place because they loved me and had no other emotional resources with which to honor me than to add my "stuff" to theirs.

And hey, I didn't use stuff to escape my situation, I used blogging. Because I am not my stuff. But I am my blog.


  1. Anonymous4:41 PM

    Bring back the Potlatch!

    Show your wealth by giving it all away.

    When I die, just open the front door and leave the light on. My stuff will find itself to the right hands.

  2. I've been doing a lot of thinking about that very same thing myself.

    In a consumerist society like ours which places the highest premium upon consumption, I think many people cannot separate their own identity from what they own.

    As for me, I can probably count on one hand anything I'd seriously mourn if my home burned to the ground, and my guitar is first on the list.

    What I find most objectionable are the basic premise of most of these reality television shows---that other people need changing to a degree of socially acceptable that borders on obsessive.

    So what if someone has a dirty home or drooping eyelids? What happened to being happy with yourself the way you are?

    Guess you can't make money with that attitude.

  3. '...our society teaches us all forever that we are what we BUY'

    One of the many exciting, vibrant, and sensational drawbacks of a deeply entrenched consumer society - 'If you ain't got IT*, you ain't got...'


    *...IT only available in select markets, for a limited time only.

  4. Anonymous9:56 PM

    That's why I get rid of stuff a few times over the year. I'm tired of stuff...and I have a tiny NYC apartment, so I have much less than most people. Purging stuff you don't wear or use and giving it to frineds, family or charity just makes sense and feels good. The thing is gone and someone is using it. A win-win. It helps, I must add, that I'm not sentimental about stuff. Couldn't do it if I was.

  5. If I croak tomorrow and my wife and kids don't want my books and CDs, donate them to the library, they'll be happy to have them.

    comrade kevin hits on it. You see that heavily played in those stupid shows on MTV. The 'outcast' wants to be remade into the popular boy/girl. It's fucking creepy. I'm glad my kids find it ridiculous, but apparently lots of Murkans don't.

  6. Hey, BG, can I have your YARN? (just kidding - I want akabini's yarn)

    I went to a friend's memorial service. The deceased loved to travel, and everywhere she went she'd purchased a small tchotchke to remember the trip by. After 65 years, there were SHELVES of these things, most of which her family didn't even know the story behind.

    So they did something smart - at the memorial, they put out 5 big banquet tables literally covered with all these small knicknacks, with a sign that said "take one to remember Sheila by" - and people did. The little pyramids and snow globes and faux ivory bunnies all went to knew homes, infused with knew meanings (I personally now have a miniature onyx obelisk).

    What a great way to take a pile of useless junk and turn it into both a meaningful ritual and a space-clearing exercise! Better yet, the deceased would have laughed over it, too.

  7. lordy i hope i'm not the stuff i have.

    tho, i too AM my blog!

  8. The film clip was too painful for me to watch all the way through. I see where the pillory tradition went! Except now we pelt people with standardization (of their accommodations, body, ideas) rather than fruit & veg that have gone nasty.

    I'm not sure which is worse, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the modern reality show is.


  9. My Tai Chi teacher, Jane Faigao, died in 2001. She had a Buddhist funeral. Her body was burned in the open air on a large grate over a pile of wood at Red Feather Lakes Shambala Center. People stood around telling stories, singing songs.

    Even the body is stuff, just a vehicle for who we really are.

  10. Applause applause.

    I must say that because my step-daughter watches this, I have gotten sucked into it. (and into its train-wreck like seduction!)

    And because I have had to struggle with "stuff" all my life, most recently when I moved here last year... I get it.

    We are what we buy in this society and my move, my unemployment and my broke-assedness has changed that a lot. All in good ways I might add.

    Yesterday I actually did need to get 2 things at Target and I felt such distaste about going. A year ago, 6 months ago, 6 years ago I would have gotten the two things plus 22 more things.

    I have less stuff now, although still too much. When I go- it needs to be gone with me. Up in flames- buh-bye!

    Thanks for this great post.

  11. Anonymous9:41 PM

    When the frack do you guys watch teevee? I watch Keith O, and movies. Screw the networks; that stuff will fuck you up.

    I was a crime scene tech back in the day; I've been to a number of "unattended deaths" that were like those houses; just little channels you could walk through.

    The weirdest one was an old gal who finished life here under the kitchen table; just about the only place big enough to fall over and not hit a pile of shit.

    People who decide to die-- consciously or unconsciously-- start letting go of stuff.

    Red flag. Zen your house. Make it holy.

    Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

    Thanks Fran.

  12. I think a lot of this is about people not being able to cope with the loss of a loved one -- but I think it's also about that individual feeling a sense of abandonment. They have been abandoned by mother/father/partner/sibling/child and they simply can't "abandon" anything -- not even that box the new (fill in the blank) item came in.

    A friend of mine had this issue. She was orphaned, and her adoptive parents didn't really love her. I think because she felt such a sense of abandonment, she simply couldn't let anything go. At one point there was simply a path through her four story home. She had storage rental units all over town.

    We were walking my dog once and I gently poised the question to her: "What if you gave up some of the stuff that you haven't even touched in years, give up the storage rentals, and rent a fabulous condo on the beach. Instead of collecting rental receipts you could collect wonderful memories with your partner."
    I would like to think she heard me, and that it helped. She was working with a councilor on her issues, and within a year the clutter in her home was reduced significantly.

    She eventually sold the big home, and she and her partner moved into a lovely condo with a view of the Potomac.


  13. Well, as a confessed Clean House addict, I share your discomfort with these people playing out their issues on national television for entertainment purposes. But at the same time, some of these people have been helped by the show and just needed that push to get started. As a cluttery type and packrat myself, I found myself watching this show once when they had an all-day marathon -- and became hooked. Because while I'm not messy enough to qualify for this show, I too find myself just moving things around, unable to part with them. But as a result of watching these people in action, I got rid of a ton of stuff, sold a bunch at a garage sale, donated 3 bags of clothes to a thrift store that benefits a substance abuse outpatient clinic, two carloads of hanging clothes, much of it with the tags still on, to the local animal welfare group thrift shop, and freecycled a bunch more. And I still have clutter. I'm starting to consider another garage sale.

    I like what the designer on this show does in that it isn't all cookie-cutter Crate and Barrel/Pottery Barn looking (though much of it is). He DOES try to get to the style of the people involved. But what I don't like is when they talk people into getting rid of some really cool antique wood piece to make money to buy particleboard crap made in China.

    Hoarding and compulsive consumption isn't about having or buying stuff making people happy. I don't think most of the people on this show are "happy" having a house they're embarrassed to entertain in. I know I'm not. The problem is that because the show is limited to the L.A. area (and therefore a finite universe), it gets harder to find people who just need a push, rather than the truly pathological. The other night they showed a revisiting of the show's first "messiest house in the country" and the family was well on their way back to where they were before.

    I'll defend the show by saying that this isn't like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" where you get a new house with top-line everything. Yes, the show kicks in a lot of "gifts" of furniture and flooring and carpet and such, but when you consider that the amount of money the crew has to work with is rarely more than like $2500, they do a lot with a little. These people don't get new kitchens with Jenn-Air ranges, they get their same old kitchen with newly-painted cabinets and organizers. I'd say it's LESS about the "stuff" than most shows, except where the attachment to tchotchkes is concerned.

  14. After 2 failed marriages and a bankruptcy years ago, stuff isn't important so much as a nuisance I tolerate too much. The thing that threw me was being used to being the occupier of a social position :'Dad'. The rest didn't matter much. The emotional shitstorm that ruined/truncated my time with the kids was a whole 'nother matter.
    Give yourself time to grieve for lost hopes. Blogging ? Damn good fun and conversation.


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