MAXWELL: Feeling much lighter without all that stuff
8/14/2002 -Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

A friend told me about a routine comedian George Carlin did about “stuff,” the various and sundry things that average people collect and put in their homes.
Here are two definitions of stuff I found in a dictionary: 1. “a group or scattering of miscellaneous objects or articles.” 2. “to choke or block up.”
Believe me when I tell you that I know all about stuff. Until recently, I was a champion collector of stuff, a world-class stuff man, a stuff connoisseur, a stuff fool, a stuff slave, a stuff addict.
Collecting stuff is a disease. Most people, as I did, learn that they are afflicted when they prepare to move and must pack and get rid of stuff and decide what stuff to keep.
As many readers know, I will be teaching for a semester at a Texas university. When I return to St. Petersburg in December, I am not returning to the large three-bedroom house I rented for eight years. I plan to move to a simple apartment.
Let me tell you, I have collected several tons of stuff _ some I cannot recall where I bought or found it; some I have never used a single time; some I buried beneath something else and forgot I had it; some I do not recognize at all; some I must have bought in my sleep (or while under the influence); some must have created itself or transmigrated from another world.
As a single person, I had more than 30 dinner plates, as many coffee mugs, as many drinking glasses, a dozen knives, forks and spoons. I had boxes of plastic containers that I never used. I had enough pots and pans to operate a bistro.
Although I hate doing home repairs, I had three or four hammers, two axes, two hatchets, several boxes of nails, two crow bars, several pliers and channel locks, two pipe wrenches. I even had a 30-foot extension ladder.
As one who has not hunted since 1973, I had four hunting knives, six boxes of shotgun shells, four boxes of rifle cartridges, duck and turkey calls, duck decoys, two bright orange hunting suits, two pair of snake-proof boots.
I do not know anything about repairing cars, but I had enough car stuff and tools to keep a hot-rodder in business.
I had more than 200 feature film videos and DVDs, and more music tapes than I could count. I am still getting rid of paintings, some of them valuable, some not worth the spot they had on the wall.
Not known as a neat freak, I had enough cleaning materials to keep the average three-bedroom home clean for six months. Let us not talk about old magazines. You know the ones I mean _ that old Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine that had that must-read article you never got around to.
And the photographs: the hundreds taken in Israel last time; those of Transylvania; those of the Nile River; those of New York’s ground zero; those of children and grandchildren; those of Civil War battlefields. Photographs. So many of them. Where did they all come from?
Then, there is the stuff that some writers collect: old typewriters used years ago, that first computer (Amstrad); rough drafts of unpublished (unpublishable) short stories, novels, plays; notebooks, notebooks.
Let me pause to say that I never thought of books as stuff _ until now. I have collected books since high school. In fact, I still have a small box of 25 cent Signet and Belmont books I bought in the early 1960s.
Until a few days ago, I still had the Great Books series I bought in 11th grade by selling night crawlers and picking oranges. These beautiful books meant everything to me. I used them when I attended the University of Chicago 10 years later.
But they are gone now. I gave them away. I gave away as many as 20,000 books. Again, I never thought of books as stuff. But now that they are gone, I see that they, too, were stuff. I used to cringe when people asked if I had read all of my books. Well, of course not, I would smugly reply. This is a library, a collection, silly.
In the future, if someone asks if I have read all of the books in my home, I hope to be able to say “absolutely.” I shall not collect any more books. I will read them and give them away.
Moving has altered my relationship to things, to possessions, to stuff. Indeed, I will never let stuff own me again. I am free for the first time in my adult life.
Last thing. Those little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash and lotion that you get at hotels and motels. Well, I had enough to keep 50 people looking and smelling good for a week.
No more stuff to “choke or block up” my life. Come to think of it, this is existential stuff, isn’t it?