In last week’s column I mentioned that I am “neatness impaired,” and I’m most comfortable when my office has stacks of old newspapers, magazines, and books scattered around the room.
Despite my proclivity for accumulating reading material, I recently discovered I am part of the modern “throwaway culture.” I’m quick to throw away anything, as long as it does not have printed words on it. Eventually I toss the reading material, too — usually right after the Fire Marshall finishes his inspection of my basement office and orders me to dispose of a ton or two of old newspapers.
Earlier this summer my siblings and I rented a couple of Dumpsters to help our parents de-clutter their home. They’ve been in the same house for over 50 years, and being patriotic American consumers, quite a bit of stuff had accumulated during that time.
My dad was born during the Great Depression and was in high school when World War II ended. So his formative years were during an era of severe deprivation and sacrifice. Back then people often were forced to feed a family of six for an entire week with a single potato and one chicken leg. And if at least three siblings did not wear the same pair of hand-me-down shoes, then you just were not trying hard enough to win the war. Back in those days, people rarely threw anything away.
On the other hand, I was born during the 1950s, the era of peace and prosperity and rampant consumerism. There’s an old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, my motto was, “If it ain’t broke, you’re probably bored with it by now, so go buy a new one anyway.”
Starting in the 1950s and ‘60s, the concept of “planned obsolescence” was incorporated into the design of consumer goods, so most likely it was indeed broken, and you had to go out and buy a new one. Taking the time to repair something was simply not an option. Instead, you hopped into the Plymouth station wagon with wood paneling, drove down to Sears or Bradlees, and bought a new thing. Nowadays, you don’t have to look for the keys to the Plymouth or even put on pants. You just order the item online and wait for the UPS guy to deliver it.
While de-cluttering our parents’ home, my dad would see me dragging something to the Dumpster, and he’d say, “What are you doing?” And I’d reply, “Throwing away this piece of junk.” And he’d say, “That’s not junk. That’s valuable.” Then I’d say, “You don’t even know what it is.” And he’d reply, “That doesn’t matter. It’s still valuable.”
During the cleaning process there were multiple skirmishes in this clash of generational cultures. The throwaway culture Baby Boomer (me) wanted to drag anything not moving to the Dumpster, while the Depression/World War II survivor (Dad) cringed at the idea of tossing out anything that might be useful one of these days.
I repeatedly made the same statement: “If it turns out you need this thing someday, we’ll just buy a new one.” That made perfectly good sense to me, but to my dad that statement was about as insane as someone saying, “Who cares if the Red Sox win or lose?”
Convinced that I was right, I ignored my dad’s pleas and continued to throw item after item into the Dumpster. But maybe he was right and I was getting a little carried away. After a couple of hours, I heard muffled sounds coming from the Dumpster. I looked in, and quite surprised, I said, “Mom! What are you doing in there? Let me help you out.”