Prized possessions. Have you ever said this? What do you consider to be your most treasured object? I recently tried to negotiate a deal with the people I bought a piece of property from: I asked them to leave this really nice 1950s desk. They said, “No.” It was their “prized possession.” I must admit I really wanted that desk, so maybe I’m just being a baby about it, but when they framed their response that way, it made me scoff. How can any object be so valuable to someone? Sure, I have a number of things I wouldn’t want to get rid of, but are they so valuable to me that I would protect them at all costs?
As I write this we’re just a week or so removed from when Hurricane Harvey touched down on the Gulf Coast, smashing Texas and Louisiana. As I watch the news I see people’s lives in shambles, all of their things gone, whether they were “prized” or not. Most are thankful that their friends, families and pets are safe, few made public mention of any specific object being gone forever. In fact, in the footage you see people stumble across something that may have never meant anything to them before the storm, and the simple fact that they found it afterwards, still intact, gives it meaning by simply having weathered the storm (no pun intended). Prized possessions are a slap in the face to humanity. That we could ever value any intangible object so much that we wouldn’t dare consider to part with it, well, that’s simply ridiculous. At this point you’re probably thinking, “Man, this guy is moaning about not getting some desk in a real estate transaction. Who’s he to talk about overvaluing objects?” Touché. But this is my column and I will use it as my soapbox.
I have a number of things I’ve held on to for years, in some cases, decades. Many of these things sit in boxes unopened for months if not years at a time. I don’t seek out a specific shirt, picture, newspaper clipping or knickknack, but somehow I’m comforted that they exist and are in my possession. I was recently telling someone that I had around 350 t-shirts. They were in awe. How could I have so many? Did I wear them all? Where do I keep them? All in storage boxes, mostly. I’d say there are maybe 50-60 in “rotation,” but most never see the light of day. But I’ve attached meaning to all of them, somehow, even though I know they’re just inanimate objects. I have t-shirts I’ve never worn before, mostly because I’m scared I’d ruin them if I did. How stupid is that? A shirt I’ll never wear, I never look at, and it sits in a box. Why keep it, right? I thought about taking these shirts, the ones I don’t wear, and making them into some sort of quilt or tapestry, that way they could at least be displayed. That hasn’t happened yet. I doubt it will. They’ll stay in their oversized Tupperware container until the next move, or the final move where they’ll be pushed up in the attic for some generation down the line to unearth. And it is one thing to have 350 t-shirts. It’s another to not realize this is an issue and keep buying more. Like I did this weekend…
I do have some relics that are worth keeping, I guess, but only because they were gifts or family heirlooms. Either way they’re just things ascribed value and become another burden on me. I’ve often railed and ranted against our contemporary consumer society – but I’m just as bad as anyone, obviously – and a neighbor friend, a Marxist, loves to poke jabs at me, calling me a capitalist with an anarchist’s streak. He said until I realize that capital and class are what ails society, and me, then I will continue to struggle under the weight of stuff and more stuff. The capitalist mode of thought is to grow, acquire more, and I guess that is what we (I) do as we age in this society and many others. Buy more stuff to soothe our unquenchable thirst. It’s funny though, this Marxist has a sports car, an SUV and a lovely two-story home in a much-desired neighborhood, not to mention several other nice “things,” so maybe it’s a case of do what I say, not what I do. Or maybe I’m just failing to understand the role of things in Marxist thought. Either way, I haven’t been swayed. His declaration that I have an anarchist streak, well, I like that. I’m not sure that I’ve ever considered myself to be one, but it has a ring to it. Not trusting of the establishment, wary of those who ascribe to traditional power structures, that all sounds very nice. But then he is quick to remind me that I cannot be fully an anarchist while a libertarian/capitalist. So here we see a dialectic between my aspiration for prized possessions and my aspiration for prized status or a prized philosophy (if he’s even right). So either way I’m still looking to be something, attain something, or be represented by something. I’m crushed by the weight of my affiliations, my upbringing, my desires, and my erratic and neurotic state of mind.
So, this real estate transaction I recently entered into; is it another prized possession? Are our homes just that? For the American Dream, and those who aspire to “achieve” it, they most certainly feel so. We’re told to work to the goal of home ownership, a white picket fence, two cars and an annual vacation. In 20 years will I be so connected to this place that it becomes a component of “my pride and joy”? I hope not, but when you become familiar with something, make memories in something (good or bad), then it is bound to get tied to your sense of self, and may become a defining part of your self-presentation. “Oh, Marco lives there. Such an odd house. Such an odd guy.” That’s what people will say. Then I might revel in those ascribed qualities that have been projected onto me. I might take comfort in my master possession, it might become a reflection of who I am. My crown jewel. My prized possession. But back to the desk.
For as long as I can remember, in the earliest years of being an “adult,” I never had a true desk. My folks tried to get me to take a nice one about 15-16 years ago, and I did, but I never used it and ended up getting rid of it. I always just used a snack table or TV tray for my laptop. It was all the space I needed, had no character, and no perceived value. If it got broken or stolen, so what? I’d buy another for $5-10 and be on my way. Then a certain person got in my ear about a nice desk, and I bought one about a year ago. Not a prized possession, but I like it. And now I was trying to bargain for another one. I’m starting to look at things as not simply something that captivates my interests and desires for a fleeting moment, but for a collection of moments to come. I’m starting to plan my life of things. I don’t know that this is a bad thing per se, but making decisions about inanimate objects to create a life around, well, that’s odd. Right?
So here we are – or here I am. Ranting about not getting a desk from some people I don’t know because it was their “prized possession.” I have no idea of their history, what they did to get that desk, how they used it, or anything else. It could have been in the family for years. They may have found in a dump when they were rummaging. But nonetheless they ascribed value to it beyond what anything should receive. Maybe it was just a flippant comment, not meant to carry the value I have adhered to it. But maybe the issue is in why it bothers me so much. Why do I care if someone values an object so much? It isn’t my life, right? Here I’m forced to think of the craftsman who makes a beautiful object with their sweat equity and years of training, only to sell it. Are they selling a part of themselves? Is this the true alienation of labor my Marxist friend was getting at? Maybe the issue is that I think I should just be able to buy something from someone without any thought otherwise. Maybe I am the exploiter of others meanings and work. Maybe that desk is where those folks earned their money to buy the house that I bought from them. Maybe I just don’t understand what goes into the money that buys the things we come to cherish. Or maybe we, as a society, just need to stop caring about things and spend our time caring about others, myself included – and I’ll go back to my snack table for a desk.