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Replacing Physical Clutter With Digital

Not sure when it happened, but I’ve reached the point in life where I realize I’d better start getting rid of the clutter of decades of accumulating stuff. George Carlin’s stuff routine got it exactly right. I wander around my nine-room colonial and wonder, how do we end up collecting so much? My wife never fails to point out, it’s mostly my stuff. I say the difference between normal people and those horders on TV is a matter of degree.

My stuff is like an archaeological tel of my life’s successive passions. I was an audiophile, with a big LP collection. LP, you know, 33s. I still have the turntable, receiver, tape deck, and hardwood speakers from the 1970s. Today a vintage electronics scavenger came by, responding to our Craig’s List ad for the two speakers. Most of the drivers have rotted out, but they can be repaired or replaced, and he’ll probably resell them for hundreds. I took $50 cash. But it was a great stab against the clutter, getting rid of two boxes the size of small refrigerators. Still, I had a pang of regret. I still remember the moment I plugged all this stereo gear together and played a record on it. I can never return to that sound.

Photography and darkroom gear is another matter. That passion reined for 30 years. All of my gear is totally obsolete, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. It’s not the stuff, necessarily, so much as the time, effort and joy it represented. Maybe when (if) I retire I’ll take up wet, silver-halide photography again. I don’t even have to expose another piece of film — I’ve got 15 notebooks filled with thousands upon thousands of negatives.

I still have three manual typewriters. If the grid fails, I can still write. I’ve got news for you — they still make carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Fishing rods? A half dozen and two tackle boxes.

The Swiss Army Knife and pocket AM radio I got for my bar mitzvah? Oh yeah, still got ’em. They’re like new. So were the speakers. So is the receiver, except the capacitors are starting to break down. All technology eventually de-orbits into entropy.

Lately I’ve noticed a new form of clutter gliding into life. Digital clutter.

Here’s an example. I play keyboards in a geezer rock ‘n’ roll band. In fact, that’s another clutter story. Someone gave me a used keyboard 10 years ago, and now I’ve got a collection of five keyboards, plus stands, amplifiers and a big duffel bag full of cables, pedals, tambourines, lamps for dark venues, Lord knows what else. It weighs 50 pounds. Anyhow, to practice the old songs, we play along to YouTube videos. I never wanted or needed a YouTube account. But I have one anyhow, so I can have a favorites list and keep together the Tom Petty, Grateful Dead, Doors and Eric Clapton clips we try to emulate. It comes with a Google+ account. What is that? Another digital entity, something else to manage and take up solid-state hard drive space.

I’ve got so many online accounts for shopping, travel, social media, music, municipal parking, sports and applications I have a special app — no doubt linked directly to Russian cyber thieves — just to manage all of the account names, logons and passwords.

Among the three e-mail accounts I use daily, there is a total of 40,000 messages. Email is like a yard that never gets raked. I should bulk erase 99 percent of it, but what if I need some tidbit of information there some time? I’ve heard of people declaring “bankruptcy” and just deleting everything.

My contacts list is a big clutter. Because sync software doesn’t really work very well, contacts sort of self-multiply. People start appearing twice, three times, or just as an e-mail entry. There’s not enough time in a life to keep your contacts list scrupulously clean. I have probably a dozen deceased people in my contacts whom I can’t bring myself to delete.

Thinking about stuff, I realize it’s not the external value that makes us cling to it. Rather, it’s the associations, the history, the evidence it provides that we were here and we did this and that. Erase the past, and we erase ourselves. What more concrete manifestations of our egos and ids are here besides the items we once valued?

I’ll tell you what: It’s the good works we do with and for other people, and the relationships we establish and nuture. Ultimately, the stuff is just stuff, but because of the tactile history and the associations that go with it, we can’t seem to toss it. Ever notice how mentally easy it is to de-clutter someone else’s house?

Happy New Year!

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