Tag Archives: packrat

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.



A delusion, not a fantasy

The waiting room in Radiation Oncology had as its focal point a big, expensive saltwater aquarium full of colorful fishes with lovely cool blue illumination. The fish were not just the center of attention; they were celebrities who got the most flattering light in the place. The walls were off-white yellow and the fluorescents the old-fashioned greenish kind, so all the humans in the room looked utterly drained of hemoglobin, as if the Angel of Death had drifted by, as, perhaps, it had.

As the treatments progressed, I realized that the lighting in the clinic was not solely to blame — I really was turning pale. Blusher became not a grooming accessory but the way to keep from looking like a cold ivory carving.

After I recovered, I kept wearing blusher, because I never did regain all my color. Blusher (or rouge, as my mother called it) makes me feel more confident and energetic. The range of tints is wider than one might imagine, and selecting just the right colors of blush and lipstick each day is a minute of calm pleasure in the morning rush.

I discovered that blush looks so stripey or dotty on most people because they actually use the doll-sized brushes that come with the compact. Cosmetics are no exception to the need for the right tool for the job. So I became fascinated by blush brushes in all their many shapes – flat, oval, fan, round, angled.

da Vinci 332 large travel blush brushI bought just two, though, from Bdellium and Mary Kay. They were perfectly fine, but they could not keep me from obsessing over the luxury collection of da Vinci brand makeup brushes. In particular, I pined for the $65 large retracting travel blush brush in a gleaming metal case. I imagined how smoothly the mechanism must work, how soft the brush must feel and how evenly its perfectly domed fluffiness would apply color so naturally, as if I really still did have roses in my cheeks. I envisioned myself opening the case, swiveling out the brush, touching it to the lovely pan of color, and making my aging, post-cancer complexion come alive.

But then I realized that the da Vinci brush was so magnificently large, shiny, scratchable, and dentable, it wasn’t practical for daily use in my purse (alongside my headlamp), nor for the one-night “mental health breaks” I take in hotels a few times a year (a chance to soak in a tub, sleep in a bed, and watch TV). This brush was meant for the kind of travel that involves entire weeks away from home.

At that point, the brush came to represent for me a fantasy life of leisure, of weeks spent here and there in five-star hotels, in multiple homes in the great cities of the world, and in a quiet, breezy villa overlooking the blue, blue ocean the color of the aquarium in the Radiation Oncology waiting room, but with the drowsy brushing sound of waves soothing me as I gently used the brush to apply to my skin the shade of lifeblood, even when nobody was around to see, or perhaps too when there was someone special nearby.

All for a clever piece of metal filled with artfully shaped hair for which squirrels doubtless have more practical uses.

The fantasy is having the villa; but the delusion is that owning that brush would get me somehow closer to having the villa, in the manner of sympathetic magic. No, I can daydream about a villa just fine without delusionally spending money on something that I cannot use in its proper manner. But if you are the kind of person who uses the words “summer” and “winter” as verbs, and you use rouge, I recommend this brush highly because it is beautiful and so consistent with your way of life.

Progress report: One for one

VictoryI’m happy to report progress. This blog is helping me to relinquish my obsessions with wanting stuff. It provides repeated practice in renouncing things of many different sorts for many different reasons in many different ways. I’ve gone into a few of my older posts and said, “Oh, yeah, I used to really really want that for years… wow, I forgot.” This isn’t exactly conquest of my shopaholism, but it’s a little victory! I feel a bit freer on the inside, less bothered by spiderwebs of longing for objects. There are still tons of objects I want, but this blog is actually helping.

Now I’m trying something new. I’m going to balance buying something with getting rid of something. This feels uncomfortable. I’ve never been moderate in my management of belongings. I tend to either buy or get rid of stuff by the bag, by the box, or even more. Or I get rid of one single thing or buy one single thing, but not at the same time. Moderation and balance are a whole new ballgame. Or, to use the metaphor from early in this blog, this time I’m simultaneously letting out some hoarded water from the bathtub and letting some fresh new water in.

This plan is a little dicey, because I am buying a bible. I’ve written before about my fascination with bibles of various form factors, especially cute little bibles. (You can click here to see that post.) So I had hoped to be rid of the urge to buy more bibles. I don’t want to fall into a spell of enthusiasm and buy a boatload of various translations, or a parallel-text French-English bible, or that cute chunky edition…

However, as I told you, I read the Bible a lot online, on BibleGateway.com. Recently, the New International Reader’s Version caught my attention. (Click here to see a couple of verses in the NIRV compared to other translations.) And when I want to explore a translation, I want a physical book to flip through and page through.

NIrV with polka dotsI wrote half a blog post explaining how I chose not to buy this translation. I made fun of my wanting the jolly teal polka-dotted edition, and I tsk-tsked at the unscholarly simplified language in the NIRV (which is much easier than the translations I normally read, such as the NRSV). And I quoted myself: “God is not a genie to be captured in a bottle, and bibles are not toys.” That last is true, but I could not sincerely finish writing the post, because the more I wrote, the more I realized I do not want this bible out of shopaholism. I really do want to explore this translation.

Writing this blog is teaching me, slowly, how to distinguish the emotional sensations of shopaholism and hoarding. It is not easy, but it is becoming less difficult for me to tell when I actually want something for itself and when there are reasons not to get it.

I am beginning to sense that when I want to buy something in the right way, I feel a more level-headed, calmer, clear-cut set of interrogations compared to when I am longing for something. Do I really have the space? Do I really have the money? Will I have the time and commitment to respect this object and respect myself by using it, and using it well? Will I lay it aside because it turns into junk in my hands and I get bored with it? Is it worth devoting some of the minimal space in my tiny home to it? Will I have the willpower to give it away if it disappoints, even though I paid good money for it?

So this time I thought about it, and eureka! Why don’t I get rid of one of my least-read bibles? One for one at the same time! I know that those of you who don’t have hoarding and shopaholism problems are probably rolling your eyes at this big “discovery,” but it was a discovery for me!

My building has a tacitly agreed-upon freecycling space where we put small items we don’t want; anyone who wants can take them and after a couple of days, the building manager throws out anything left. This is the flat top of an unused radiator cover in the foyer — no clothes, very good for books, vases, bottles of perfume, and the like. It always looks neat, because if something is good quality, it gets picked up very quickly.

I put my telephone-book-sized six-pound Large Print NIV Archaeological Bible out there with a sticky saying “Great Christmas present!” I peeked a few hours later and it was gone. I felt relief. I should have gotten rid of that enormous bible long ago, because after I read a few pages I lost interest in it right away. (“But it was so expensive, and maybe I’ll make the time to study it, and I should learn what’s in it… and…”) It was even in its original box.

So, jubilantly, I ordered the (much smaller) NIRV, because even though my place is overstuffed with possessions, I was able to keep the situation from getting worse. Not exactly ascetic behavior, but self-disciplined.

One for one: A useful concept.

Dem bones, dem bones

The word “relic” is commonly used today as an insult to refer to what is old and outdated and thus unworthy, such as an iPhone 2.

320px-2347_-_München_-_St_Peterskirche In contrast, in the strict religious sense, relics of especially holy persons continue to be venerated — bones, mummified flesh, personal effects, clothing. And in a nonreligious sense, the Victorians made jewelry from the hair of loved ones, which they found particularly comforting after the death of the source of the hair.

In the third millennium, it all seems unappealingly unsanitary — a relic, so to speak, of an earlier era — compared to a digital photo, an image made of electronic zeroes and ones.

However, in the literal sense of objects tangibly connected to a person of significance, relics are still very common today and created all the time. Crayon drawings produced by kindergarteners hang in offices long after the children have graduated high school. Fine jewelry is available engraved with the fingerprints of loved ones, or even set with gems made from their cremated remains. There are kits available to memorialize the hands, feet, and buttocks of infants in three-dimensional glory.

Illu_compact_spongy_boneRelics are meant to give us a tactile, not merely visual, connection to the past. And so it is with these emotions that I am fascinated by dinosaur bone fossils. I so intensely want the pieces I am showing further down on this post that I feel a greedy, acquisitive adrenaline rush just looking at the pictures.

One is inclined to think of the plain surface of bones one sees in museums, but in some fossils, the actual delicate internal structure of the bone is visible; stone has filled in the spaces of the cancellous (spongy-structured) bone that is found at the end of long bones in all sorts of creatures. You may be most familiar with cancellous bone from the chewy end of the leg bone of a chicken underneath the cartilage (birds being the most notable descendants of dinosaurs). These fossils are sometimes called “agatized.”

red dinosaur boneFor me, there is an appealing intimacy to these wondrously lacy bone fossils. To me, the small, intricate reticulations prove the fleshliness of dinosaurs in a way that plainer, more stony specimens do not.

These attractive fossils make me recall the dry, warm, incredibly soft bellies of little live sunwarmed lizards I have handled in a tropical climate, and I imagine a hot planet filled with herds and flocks of reptiles big and small carrying out their lives in the midst of overflowing vegetation with sunlight streaming down through it and onto it — animals eating, and resting, flying around and running about, mating, and carefully raising their nests of babies, being so numerous and living lives in a climate so materially rich and verdant that our entire civilization is sustained by the petroleum remains of their world.

If I could handle one of these fossils, it could make me feel vividly, by means of flesh to flesh contact, that that world really existed ages of ages ago, really lived.

36 mm dinosaur boneAnd for so little money! And yet as inexpensive as it is, it is a treasure. It is a beautiful thing that didn’t come out of a factory, that wasn’t imagined by the human mind, a wonderful object that shouts down through the ages of a purer, more majestic time before mankind and its moral corruptions.

But I know that if I had such a fossil, I would marvel at it for a week or so, and then set it aside, and eventually it would end up in a box of chowder, forgotten, to be thrown away by the estate liquidator when I die. I have no vitrine to display it in and keep it safe. And even if I had it set in jewelry as a pendant, I would wear it almost never. I would not give it the attention, the respect, the emotional maintenance that it deserves.

Best for me to let you enjoy it, feel the flesh of the dinosaur press against your own hand, dream the dream of the ages past, and sing the song about dead bones coming alive again:

[The Etsy listings I have linked in this post are mortal, so if these particularly nice specimens have been sold, do a search for “dinosaur bone” or “agatized dinosaur bone” on that and many other websites.]

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.

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 neck, as in, the thing between head and shoulders, is on my mind because someone I know is having serious health problems with his. So I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to a product I have coveted for years, which is also illegal for me.

Necks seem to be a particular stress point in all mammals. Anyone who has massaged a cat or dog has witnessed this. A narrow cable it is, between the restless shoulders and the weight of the head.

And necks are a particular weakness in chordates. If we had no neck, we could be like amoebas, which simply use their whole bodies to surround and ingest what they want to eat, as with this amoeba turning live struggling creatures into dead food while we look right into it.

Instead, we chordates, being basically tubes made of meat, are prone to choking at that vulnerable point where what my primary care physician charmingly calls “the swallowing tube” meets the, um, air tube.

Hence the Heimlich Maneuver, which has saved countless lives.

But what if the Heimlich doesn’t work and that piece of steak is really lodged in there and you haven’t an EMT’s set of equipment on you? If you’re lucky, there will be a doctor on the spot with a penknife and the tube from a pen to perform a cricothyrotomy, aka a “crike,” the way TV doctors do? A cut is made in the cricothyroid membrane (ligament) and a tube is inserted to allow breathing through the tiny tube, hardly a yoga breath but enough to preserve life.

What if someone on the spot had something more cleanly, more dignified than a penknife and a bit of pen for performing that crike?

lifestat_imgEnter the LifeStat, a crike kit small enough to fit on a keychain.

I want to own an LifeStat. Say I’m eating at a restaurant and someone starts choking. The burliest person around performs a Heimliich, which fails. Meanwhile, I’m undoing my keychain and preparing the LifeStat. Puncture and the tube goes into the cricothyroid ligament, the patient lives, and I’m the hero. The instructions are right on the website.

Larynx_external_CricothyrotomyBut things aren’t so simple. Because of the bottleneck nature of the neck, there are lots of important nerves and blood vessels there. The cricothyroid ligament is a small target. The airway has plenty of cartilaginous support. You have to know what the cricothyroid membrane feels like, how to find it in different people. And thus, the LifeStat is reserved for sale only to physicians.

But I still want one for the sheer cleverness of the thing. It has great power for something so simple, with just a few parts, no electronics, small enough to put in one’s pocket. I want to hold one in my hands, to see how it works, to marvel at it. For about five minutes.

I will never own an LifeStat because I will never be in a position to learn how to use it, and thus it is of no use to me. But if you’re a physician, I hope you will buy one of these and keep it on your keychain, because it’s a damned clever little crike kit and you might just save someone’s life when you don’t have the usual equipment at hand.

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