Tag Archives: hoarder

Too snug

I started out by writing some nonsense about not having posted for over a week because I was struggling with a topic. Indeed, my next post will be an Observation, and those always take a little longer to write.

However, the main truth about my silence was that in my constant war against overflow of the “bathtub” of my SRO, I’ve had to turn my emotional attention, slowly and very reluctantly, from shopaholism to hoarding.

Packratting is boring compared to shopaholism: I don’t want to gather up all my trash, then walk it down two storeys to the garbage depot, and then walk back up. Same story, again and again. And the more days I am in denial, as I have been this past week, the worse it gets.

At this time of year, facing my clutter is even more difficult. I don’t want to deal with the gifts that people give me, so I leave them here and there half-opened so that the boxes and wrappers snag on me when I try to walk from one place to another in my little home. (Let’s see if I get to the Harry and David’s basket before the pears go bad.) Then there’s the problem of the original boxes that things were shipped to me in that aren’t nice enough to use to give people their presents in. And now I don’t have space to gather up trash as I usually do, so the bags and boxes from needful things like food and prescriptions pile up, ready for me to slip and fall on and for vermin to explore

It’s like the huge garbage whorls in the Pacific Ocean. There’s the big patch by the sink, the patch between my computer and the window, the patch by the door on the closet side, the patch by the door on the other side…

It always amazes me that in about ten days I can go from imagining that I’ve got my hoarding sort of under control to finding that I’m living in quite unpleasant circumstances of my own making. Given that my place is only 8′ x 10′, I shouldn’t be so surprised at how fast this happens, but the sudden ballooning always takes me unawares. I really do feel like Alice (in Wonderland) panicking at how small my room has become so quickly.

I took a couple of little presents to the foyer and put them on the freecycle shelf for someone else to use as their Christmas presents for people in their lives, but that’s not nearly enough to make up for the chaos reigning rampant in my home.

So I am sorry not to have written as I regularly do, but I think the hoarding situation is urgent enough for me to sign off now and put some sweat into dealing with the mess. Housekeeping requires a completely different sort of asceticism from restraining shopaholism, but it is ascetic nonetheless.

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Hoarding, shopaholism, and materialism

I’ve been growing dissatisfied with the way I have been referring to myself in this blog as a hoarder (or clutterer or packrat). That’s not all I am. I realized that I am conflating hoarding with shopaholism or, more technically, oniomania. I used the analogy of a bathtub to a household in my first Observation. What I now think is that hoarding is about the bathtub being plugged; shopaholism is about the water going into the bathtub.

When I said that I’ve gotten better at draining the bathtub, I mean to say that I’m getting better about hoarding. I have almost no clothing I do not use regularly, for example. I do not, as much as I used to, “hold onto a large number of items that most people would consider not useful or valuable,” as Wikipedia puts it. As I deal with hoarding, I am even finding it easier to give away “good stuff” because I see that it is junk in my hands due to being of inadequate value to me.

What I am trying to address in this blog as a whole is the drip into the bathtub, that is, my tendencies toward shopaholism, which Wikipedia describes by the criteria of “1. Over-preoccupation with buying; 2. distress or impairment as a result of the activity; 3. the compulsive buying is not limited to hypomanic or manic episodes.”

Before I proceed further, let me refer you to three bits of Wikipedia so that you can see I am talking about three different entities.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsive_hoarding#Symptoms
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_materialism#Definition
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shopaholism#Symptoms_and_course

The topic of this Observation post is the way that so many self-help books and sermons make a monstrous error in addressing hoarding and shopaholism as if they were forms of consumerism, or what Wikipedia more precisely calls “economic materialism.” This leads on the one hand to a lot of unnecessary guilt among those with tendencies toward hoarding and shopaholism who however never have their problems really addressed, while there remain materialists who don’t realize they are disordered, who feel pleased with themselves because their multiple, large cars and homes are spacious, orderly, and free from any signs of compulsive shopping.

The general shotgun exhortation in sermons and self-help books is generally to the effect of, “Material objects cannot make you happy; only love can make you happy; do not love anything that cannot love you back.” To which I reply, “Well, duh.”

These thunderings about true happiness seem so obvious to me because hoarding and shopaholism are not marked by what Wikipedia terms “acquisition centrality,” which “is when acquiring material possession functions as a central life goal with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by people’s material wealth.”

Hoarders and shopaholics have various symptoms, but we are all marked by “distress or impairment” from our behavior toward possessions. I know all too well the grief comes from slipping on a pile of old magazines on the floor or from finding that due to earlier purchases, I have to pay special attention to make sure I have some financial breathing room. Shopaholics’ jokes about “retail therapy” are just that, jokes, and bitter ones at that. Our grief is not the materialist’s secret grief that nothing is ever enough.

I don’t labor under the illusion stuff makes me happy in any deep sense; that is part of what I am trying to say in my descriptions of things I want that I won’t buy. I hope it is unnecessary to point out that feeling good for a little while is not the same as being really happy. I know full well that these objects can make me feel good for a while but not in any fulfilling way. I have no illusions that my ability to buy something is a mark of having “succeeded” in some essential fashion.

So I have built up enough resentment that I want to say, cordially, “bugger off” to people who confuse the greed in economic materialism with the types of greed that mark hoarding and shopaholism. These are three different entities that are marked by greed of different kinds.

Greed is an unhealthy relationship to material goods that leads to the accumulation of more than is needed for a healthy life. The hoarder has difficulty letting go of things, the shopaholic has difficulty not acquiring things, and the materialist has difficulty understanding that more things are not the key to happiness. Two or all three can certainly overlap in one person, but they are not the same.

Some would call economic materialism a moral disorder while hoarding and shopaholism are mental disorders, and I consider that distinction misleading. All disorders are similar in that they are fundamentally a failure to reach full human potential. The issue then is to not to condemn some people and excuse the problems of others, but to help all people to fulfill their potential, each in their own way.

And so, what I am trying to deal with in this blog is my own shopaholism, my preoccupation with acquiring things that I consciously know will not make me happy but which I want anyway.

Furthermore, I firmly intend not to denigrate the material world, hence my phrase, “no sour grapes.” But that is a topic for some other Observation.

Empress of the Universe

Ink is a touchy topic for me. I’m not an editor, but I spend a fair amount of time entering edits and making my own edits on manuscripts of academic journal articles.

I also spent most of a decade training my boss in stages: First, not to edit in pencil, but in pen. Then, not to edit in black pen, but in color pen. And finally, not to use blue or red or purple or brown or any other color but green.

Pilot G-2 green penHave you ever wondered why green pens are fairly widely available compared to novelty colors like pink and copper? It’s because professional editors use green pens. Green has the Goldilocks advantage of contrasting well against both black text and the white paper it is printed on.

Blue pens deserve more respect in the office than they get, though not for editing. Blue ink is accepted everywhere as serious, like black and unlike other colors; but much more importantly, documents filled in or signed in blue are readily distinguishable from photocopies, without the peering and holding up to the light and feeling the back of the paper that goes along with determining whether a  document is the original.

I got excited one day some months back and ordered about a dozen different green gel pens from JetPens.com. That is about three or four years’ worth at my rate of usage. I also threw in maybe a half dozen blue gel pens, maybe a year and a half or two years’ worth for me. I told myself that I wanted to try all those different brands to see what I liked best, and besides, JetPens ships free with a $25 order. But really it was my appetite for things, rampant and ravening, that placed the order.

Zebra Sarasa Port Red gel penI did not get red. I am not sure what the market is for ordinary bright red pens, other than teachers’ corrections. But I had to fight against the urge to get some dark red pens, also called port, burgundy, and black-red.

For editing purposes, dark red ink is approximately equal to blue, purple, brown, and forest green. They’re better than black, but inferior to plain old green. Still and all, burgundy ink is uniquely pleasurable.

Dark red ink is sensuous, lapidary, luxurious, and appetizing, the color of cherry juice (not “cherry red”) and the jus in “au jus,” and the hue of that extraordinarily delicious cabernet sauvignon of which I had a glass three years ago. It calls to mind the velvets and satins in old art. Dark red is the color of royalty and of power. (Tyrian purple was more like what we would call burgundy than what we think of as purple.)

PopeInnocentX Diego Velasquez 1650While writing in purple confusingly suggests both adolescence and USDA meat stamps, and brown connotes da Vinci’s intellect laboring over parchment, dark red signals the leisure to correspond. I want to write in burgundy and feel like the Empress of the Universe.

Jarringly, the shopper inside me adds cheerfully in a television-like blare, “Pens are cheap. Throw a few burgundy pens into your next order of blue pens, doodle with them, have some fun.” Then, quietly, the avaricious octopus that hides behind the cheerful shopper inside me whispers darkly, “And when you have them in your hands, they will make you feel like Empress of the Universe instead of a desk jockey.”

No! say I stoutly. What am I going to do with dark red pens? I have no need for them at the office; for personal paper correspondence I use blue; and for the holiday season I use green. I have too many pens in the pipeline already, and those are in colors I actually use. A dark red pen would be worth a few minutes of play, and then become junk in the chowder.

In an earnestly puritanical voice, I tell myself, correctly: It is with the accumulation of ounce after ounce of small items that I ended up with too much stuff. I must turn away from even these small cheap delights. I have enough pens. So I won’t get them.

But, my heart replies, no cries of “Sour grapes!” from me, these are sweet red grapes. I refuse to pretend that these pens are unappealing. No matter if I never own another dark red pen, I will never stop feeling that burgundy ink is specially luscious.

The leaky faucet

So now you have seen examples of things seized upon by my acquisitive nature, and the reasons I will not get them. You’ll keep seeing them for a while if you keep coming to this blog; I am dismayed to admit that, as far as I can tell from my Amazon wish list, my desire for stuff is effectively infinite.

But when I stayed at a convent for a week, I learned just how little I needed. I correctly thought I didn’t need to bring much with me, but I couldn’t pack less than two heavy bags. However, what I discovered was that in addition to what the convent provided (bedding, towels, alarm clock, food), all I really needed was my watch and a few changes of clothing; comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, and foot powder; prescriptions, CPAP machine, and eyeglasses. I was vain enough to use unneeded antiperspirant, sunscreen, and lip sunscreen.

What was so striking was that apart from antiperspirant and sunscreens, I didn’t feel anxious at being deprived of my unneeded stuff, as one might expect of a hoarder-clutterer-packrat; nor did I feel relief at being freed from the burden of my excess stuff; I just didn’t need it so I didn’t think about it. I even stopped missing email after three days, and even that urge did not halt with a loud screech and the smell of burnt rubber; rather, the feeling just melted away silently.

Since coming back to “the world,” as monastics call it, I have puzzled over this a great deal. Why do I feel I need so much stuff at home, when I could live with so little in the convent?

Having my mind on higher things is glib to say, and untrue. I thought rather a lot about food that week, because the nuns were not only pescetarian (they cooked fish exactly once during the week I was there, and ate it up in two meals), but they also were on on a low glycemic load diet for their health. I did find difficult the admirably healthy but ethereal diet. I felt deprived enough that one day I got into the fridge and had a luxurious solitary meal of cottage cheese, boiled eggs, and peanut buttered bread washed down with whole milk, giving me a firsthand understanding of why monastics in my religion forswear “secret eating,” which had always mystified me until I did it. So I did have a clear craving — for food, just not for my stuff.

I think what allowed me to do without stuff was the specifics of the radical environmental change. I did need to eat, so I continued to crave food. But I didn’t need to do much but pray and do the simple work assigned me (tasks hard for a guest to mess up, such as weeding under a tree or grating some cheese). I didn’t need so much as a purse to take to the office or a lipstick to make my perpetually rumpled self look “professional.” There were no stores and no Amazon wish list to stoke the flames of my cupidity. And I was surrounded by renunciants who had taken a vow of poverty.

One might ask why my blog is not about examining my current possessions. However, I find that over the years with constant effort I’m gradually getting better at getting rid of stuff. The malfunctioning fire sprinklers in my storage unit do help quite a bit. The problem I find more acute is that even though I indignantly deny being a shopaholic, I still acquire things faster than I get rid of them. So I’m a shopaholic not in a budgetary sense but in terms of still letting myself buy more than I need and have space for. I’ve made progress in unstopping the bathtub drain, but I have got to do something about the leaky faucet that even at a fast drip is filling the tub faster than it empties.

I can say self-righteously and in self-delusion that I don’t listen to radio or TV (except dorkily turning the laundomat TV to Bloomberg – see, I turn it to a money channel, not a nature channel) and I don’t go to malls (except for spending time on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and any number of commercial websites, bigger than any physical mall). The fog of my greed, no matter how subtle and fine, slips through every little space to cloud my will. I need to practice admiring something yet letting go of my fantasy of how fine it would be to own it.

A box of grapes

There is one more category of things I want but won’t buy. That is stuff that needs more maintenance than I am willing or able to provide. And I mean maintenance not only in the obvious physical way, but also in the sense of whether I can own an object in a meaningful way that respects what it was meant to be.

I want a sterling etrog box, even though I’m not Jewish and not engaged to a Jewish man (etrog boxes are commonly given as a bride’s gift to a groom). I asked the people at Chabad whether it’s okay for a gentile to own an etrog box for its beauty, and they said yes, so long as it is in a nice, respectful place and not, say, in the bathroom (e.g. not as a cotton ball holder).

Etrog box 70106-0332Look at this finely sculpted silver object. In grade school, I spent many a daydreamy hour with purple and green felt tip pens drawing grapevines like this, over and over, along margins of papers and just to draw. This box brings back those peaceful memories. And it would feel so luxurious to have not only ten ounces of sterling but so much more pretty than even well designed bullion. I like to imagine myself gazing at it and admiring its workmanship.

But the problem with silver is that you either have to handle it all the time all over, like flatware used and washed every day, or you have to keep it away from air and, ideally, use 3M strips and silvercloth to attract tarnish before it attacks the object you are trying to protect.

In reality, I would never look at this glorious piece of workmanship after I bought it. It would stay wrapped up. Too much trouble to unwrap it and rewrap it. And although I would take care that it would be on a shelf and not in a box of chowder, it would just sit there and take up space and never fulfill its intended destiny of holding an etrog. I have no religious reason to take it out even a week a year.

And that brings up whether one can respectfully use something in a way that was not intended by its creator. I don’t mean something trivial, such as whether I can use a coffee mug as a pen holder; but I think there ought to be a great deal of care and hesitation and respect in repurposing objects that were created with the intent that they should bear a lot of meaning, such as, oh, using a new funeral urn as a vase for flowers. Sometimes, as I think this box was, objects are made with exceptional craftsmanship precisely because of the passion of meaningfulness.

The reason I contacted Chabad in the first place was because years before, I had been hugely offended by a photo spread in an interior decorating magazine that included a set of throw cushions all made from a brocade chasuble – the center cushion was made with the “IHS” christogram from the back center of the chasuble. I explained this story to the Chabad people to give them a context for my question about the etrog box, and they thanked me for that sensitivity. I made it clear that I admired the workmanship in etrog boxes and didn’t just think they were cute decorating pieces.

But after several years of hesitation on this, I have come to the conclusion an etrog box takes too much maintenance for me to provide, both physically and emotionally. I cannot do it proper justice either as a piece of artistry in silver or as the meaning-bearing object it was intended to be. I cannot just buy it and throw it to the acquisitive beast within me to gobble down as one more capture.

To have and to hold

Today’s item is hard to stop wishing for. But I have enough glasses already.

For well over a decade, I have had one lightweight red plastic eight-ounce tumbler that cost fifty cents. But that’s enough, because my place is too small for socializing. The plastic also has the advantage of not breaking when I knock it into the sink, which happens often, because I keep it on the edge of my sink, which is where I do almost all my hydration at home. I don’t know whether I am being practical or pathetic with this half-dollar vessel, or both.

Sometimes I look at it with mild distaste. Unlike sterling, plastic does not look finer and more luxurious with a patina of micro-scratches from sustained daily use. My old tumbler has the exhausted dullness of a plastic pet food bowl that has been slobbered on by several generations of furry diners.

Turquoise pint glassesIn contrast, here are beautiful handmade drinking utensils. Look at the subtly shaded turquoise glaze! Note the fascinating peacock feather pattern where a piece of blue glass was allowed to melt down the side during firing! Admire the well-shaped lip, not too thick. Beverages probably taste superior in these superior cups.

Naturally, they would be fine for a pint of your favorite dilution of Mio or Dasani Drops (my favorite beverages), or for displaying some flowers, but they are intended for beer. These are broad-diameter pilsner glasses. You can put one in the freezer safely (I asked) and enjoy a really “cold one.”

I have beer less than once a year – I mourn the departure of Lowenbrau Dark and have never had the heart to look for a substitute. (If you know of one, tell me.) And as I mentioned earlier, I live in a dry building. And I have enough vases (two). I also have two never-used mugs that I ought to give away, hidden somewhere in the clutter that crowds my room and adding to it. So no, I certainly don’t need these bonny blue pint glasses.

But the acquiring octopus within me wants to have and to hold one of them, to turn it in my hands and admire how the light shines on it, and how it feels in my hand and against my lips. The tentacles of my acquisitiveness seek to palpate the surface of the ocean-blue pottery ever so slowly. You could afford it, the octopus whispers coyly.

Maybe buy one to just look at it for a few minutes before wrapping it up to give? But I don’t know anybody who would enjoy this as a gift. I already got a handmade pilsner glass for the one person I know who drinks beer, and I suspect he is fastidious enough in his self-regard that he would raise a disapproving eyebrow if I gave him another beer glass.

So I shall force my acquisitive octopus to be satisfied with the little red cup that bounces off the bottom of my sink. I urge you in my stead to buy one or a set of these blue vessels that highly deserve to be owned. I am not in a position to own them, but I am sure they are worthy of you.

Let me know if they make beer taste as good as I suspect they do.

(This listing is mortal, so here is a link to the creators’ shop.)

Junk in my hot little paws

Welcome to my blog. I trust you have read my “About.” Some years ago, I noticed that no matter what I wear, on me it looks much cheaper than it should. This means I cannot wear cheap clothes, because then I look like a bag lady.

The same mysterious devaluation happens to a lot of things I buy (though not all, by a long shot). Elegantly designed or clever or pretty they may be, but once I get them in my hot little paws, they mostly turn into junk. I enjoy them for a little while, then they go into boxes, then the boxes go into my storage unit, where eventually the fire sprinklers go off accidentally and ruin the boxes.

But the fact that these objects turn into junk does not mitigate the marvelousness of the things, at least before the water ruins them. I would like to introduce you to these things of quality in case you would like to get them for yourself or someone else.

Fifteen PuzzleHere is a terrific example of something neat, cool, keen, and groovy that I have no use for, that therefore is junk I cannot bring myself to get rid of: A metal fifteen puzzle in a stitched pouch. It feels good in the hand, solid, and the tiles never start to stick or rise up as in cheap plastic puzzles. The pouch fits perfectly and closes with a satisfying metal snap. I strongly urge you to buy one if you or someone in your life would appreciate its fine design and manufacture.

I have never in my life managed to solve one of these puzzles, and I don’t anticipate I ever will. But I cannot bear to get rid of this one. It is too nicely made, and I would want to give it to the perfect recipient who would appreciate its quality. I never have run across someone like that.

At this point when I have spoken in person of my packratting, someone invariably says, “Why can’t you keep it? It’s just one small thing.” But the problem with having a hoarding tendency is that everything is just one small thing, and they add up to bulk and weight and too many things to keep track of. Once they go into a box, if I get a sudden impulse to enjoy them, I cannot find them in the boxes full of chowder. (Apparently, movers call the contents of such mixed, dense boxes “chowder.”)

I have identified six major categories of things I should not buy, no matter how wonderful they are and how wonderful they would be in someone else’s hands. It could be said that all six fit everything; but one category usually fits best.

  1. Useless to me
  2. Just won’t use
  3. Enough already
  4. Too expensive
  5. Needs maintenance
  6. No space for it

I will leave it at that for tonight. Continue reading

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