Thursday, July 17, 2008

Keepers and Chuckers

Elizabeth Zelvin

The human race consists of two kinds of people: those who keep everything and those who chuck anything for which they have no immediate use. As in every other generalizable division except saintliness and evil, neither keeping nor chucking is better or worse than its opposite. They’re just different. Attempts to make a keeper into a chucker or vice versa are going to be imperfect at best, a dismal failure at worst, especially in the long run.

On the Sisters in Crime e-list recently, someone wrote in to ask what to do about “stuff,” citing such examples as conference catalogs and brief mentions in the local newspaper. The replies divided themselves neatly into keepers and chuckers. The keepers cited such rational reasons for keeping every scrap of paper as the possibility of making money decades down the road by selling archives and having evidence for a possible audit by the IRS. But that’s not really why they keep stuff. They simply can’t bear to throw anything away. I know this because I’m a keeper myself.

One consequence of being a keeper is a cluttered home. I’ve got one of those. Two, in fact: an apartment in New York and an 800 square foot (yes, only two zeroes, that’s not a typo) house on the East End of Long Island into which not so much as an additional wall calendar will fit. I flunk feng shui, but I don’t care. I love the stuff with which my home is cluttered. To me, it says, “Interesting people live here.” I fill my space with mysteries and African masks and pottery and photographs. I have straw necklaces from Timbuctoo that I bought in 1965 and the autobiography I wrote for fifth grade in a ten-cent notebook covered with construction paper and filled with drawings and snapshots.

Can a person be a keeper/chucker hybrid? I’d say yes, because my husband is one of those. He keeps library books and stuffed animals and toy soldiers and the little blue tickets the dry cleaner puts on his shirts and hundreds of dollars’ worth of pennies and nickels and dimes. But he throws away ATM receipts. And he talked me into selling my canoe. I’d bought it dirt cheap at a yard sale, and everybody else I know thought I’d been clever to get such a bargain. My husband considered it a malevolent plot to put him to work lifting a heavy and unwieldy object onto and off the top of our car. So I had shoulder replacement surgery and my right shoulder aches if I reach for something on a high shelf, not to mention when I paddle a canoe. So what? I might need a canoe some day. By selling it, we may have thrown away our chance of escaping a tsunami or post-nuclear holocaust. We certainly aren’t going to get away by car along two-lane Route 27 from Montauk, even though the signs say “Coastal Evacuation Route.”

The other thing my husband persuaded me to throw away was my files of tax returns and documentation from the 1970s. “You’ll never need that stuff,” he said, on a roll in pure chucker mode. “Everybody says the IRS only looks back seven years at most.” So now, with New York City rent control under constant threat, I no longer have proof that I’ve occupied my apartment since 1970. If my billionaire landlord ever tries to pry me out, the earliest piece of paper I can show is a canceled check from 1986. I wish I’d never thrown those back files out. Will I ever let my husband live it down? Are you kidding? Hell, no. I’m a keeper.


Anonymous said...

I think there's a gene for this. My grandmother lacked it--she reduced her universe to a New York studio apartment filled with carefuly selected and treasured items. Me, I have every check I've ever written--and my grandmother's as well. If anyone ever wants to write my biography, it'll be a piece of cake.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, your husband keeps library books? Doesn't the library object? :-)

I keep far too much stuff, but occasionally I have a toss-a-thon and get rid of a lot of it.

Elise M Stone said...

Having just moved, I had to go through the agony of the pack or toss dilemma. I tend to be a keeper but, like Sandy, go through periods of tossing.
I shredded the financial stuff older than seven years. (But what if I need it some day?)
I packed the QLink memorabilia - and if you remember QLink, the predecessor to AOL for the Commodore 64 computer - you must be as old as I am. But it seems to me that some day it will be worth something. Along with those old computer games that I kept and have no machine to run on.
Books? I'm pretty close to my limit on shelf space there. Do I stop buying books? (Oh no!) Or buy another bookcase?
Some day I'll be like Sheila's grandmother and pare things down to essentials. But not just yet...

Julia Buckley said...

I used to be a keeper, but now I've gotten very good at chucking. There's a whole philosophy of freedom behind it--but I am saddled with a keeper husband and two keeper sons, so my house looks pretty keeper-y.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I've been in that canoe. Trust me - in a nuclear holocaust the only thing it could have helped with would have been as something to hide under. Or does hiding under metal get you fried?
My daughter is convinced we are going to have that Tsunami but she is also convinced that she is going to have a dream about it beforehand and tell the people she cares about when to leave. And if we all listen we'll be OK. And leaving means getting on a train and heading North. I'll let you know. Forget the canoe.
So, on the topic of chucking. I read that book about Feng Shui and clutter. It works. I decided all my years of accumulated junk were filling up the space where I was trying to put an adopted kid. I ditched about twenty boxes of stuff and got myself a pretty big daughter. Who proceeded to fill her room with *her* accumulated things. Yes, the kid who didn't get my genes has more miscellaneous stuff than any other ten kids who lived under the auspices of our foster system combined.
And now it gets scary. I don't know what I threw out that left room for her to get pregnant but those twenty 12x12x16 boxes only represented about a sixth of my accumulated possessions. I kind of wanted to keep the process up but I don't think I can afford to feed five or six more children or grandchildren.