That's Quite a Collection of . . . What, Exactly?

By Catherine Getches
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Inever used to have trouble getting rid of things. Maybe that's because the weird stuff that people collect can speak volumes about them, and I never wanted anyone to read anything into my fetish for collecting, say, pink plastic flamingos. I can relate to the scene in the recent movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," when Trish discovers that her boyfriend (the Virgin) has a wall-to-wall, mint condition collection of action figures and a huge stash of porn tapes. While I'm sure a still-packaged Aquaman and a video of "Forrest Hump" have their finer points, it can still be disturbing to come face to face with the things someone else has a "thing" for.

So it's always been easy for me to defer to the trash pile -- even during a post-college closet cleaning, when my teary-eyed Dad, clutching the broken strap of a straw bag I carried throughout junior high, was only able to eke out the words, "Not . . . this." He always said I "might regret it later." But now that it's later, I'm finding that unloading excess baggage is harder than I thought. Progress, it seems, has made pack rats of us all.

Thanks to modern technology, collecting stuff is stranger than ever. It's not just that once hard-to-find objects are now easy-to-come-by thanks to a high-speed connection between every man's trash and every other man's treasure. Or that eBay's "weird sales" category has become even more visible thanks to pop culture -- it's been featured on a "Tonight Show" segment, various Web sites and blogs highlighting what people actually post and pay for in the Internet marketplace. With something virtually out there for everyone, it's not surprising that bidding wars break out over a mind-reading machine (sold for $710) or a Ziploc bag full of Lucky Charms marshmallows ($102.50). One man from Indianapolis can hope to sell his soul, while another can snap up the guide "10 Secrets to Successful Toe Popping." We're all the wiser for it -- or at least ready to pounce if we see a celebrity spit out chewing gum, or spot a grilled cheese sandwich in the shape of, well, anything.

I thought it was weird that Bob Dylan collects monkey wrenches until I saw that character on "The Sopranos" who collected her hair and toenail clippings. Angelina Jolie collects beer mats, knives and orphans. My father-in-law has a stockpile of 1982 Bordeaux upstairs and an arsenal of old catalogues and magazines in the basement. A childhood friend has a garage full of empty soda and beer cans, and an old man down the street hides his driveway and house under hubcaps, his collectible of choice.

But now that technology has amped up our ability to accumulate, more and more of the stuff we collect doesn't even collect dust. My husband, for example, apparently feels better knowing that our TiVo has saved 89 episodes of "Seinfeld." Who cares that the show is rerun daily, that we own seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, or that we have yet to watch a single TiVoed episode? Apparently it calms him knowing that "The Frogger" episode is on our saved list, or that we could watch the show nonstop for days if we wanted to. Maybe I should be grateful that he doesn't collect receipts by the shoebox anymore -- he told his assistant he hates paper, so now he has a library of correspondence on his BlackBerry. Sometimes, after he's left for work, I think I'm hearing phantom noises of him scrolling that little wheel on the device.

The rise of digital cameras has similarly increased the number of pictures people take -- and made it unlikely we'll ever enjoy an actual print. We download more and more digital data, and delete less and less, as if hitting that "Del" key is like ditching the Hope Diamond. Lately, we're even being forced to save -- with Google's Gmail, the Mack truck of megabyte-storage capacity, you can't delete even if you want to.

But that's okay with us. We think it's hip to walk around with a warehouse of up to 25,000 songs or 10,000 videos on our iPods or (insert flavor-of-the-week Apple product here). And the more we collect our news in RSS feeds and receive e-mail alerts and news updates, the more we add to the deluge of e-mail we already have to troll. Now if we could only collect the time to get through it.

What really weighs me down is the idea that instead of collecting rare items, we now stockpile the ubiquitous. Before, collectors sought an original Picasso, a rare vintage Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a one-of-a-kind Indian head nickel. Now, we download "Desperate Housewives" episodes -- special only because not everyone else can do it (yet). At a dollar a song, a friend who used to obsessively alphabetize his CDs figures that when full, his 40-gig iPod nano will have a value of almost $10,000. So why don't preloaded iPods even fetch retail on eBay? Sure, we'll pay Apple $1.99 to download Kanye West and Madonna music videos, but if we never watch them, what are they worth? Maybe time will tell.

I wonder if they'll ever accumulate the value of those old-time collections. I wish I'd saved a few stamps or those two-dollar bills my Dad used to give me, now that I see all the cash in coin collecting and philately. In the last month, a set of four U.S. stamps sold for a record-breaking $2.7 million, a set of coins went for a U.S. record of $8.5 million, and shortly afterward, there was a world-record sale of a single 1-cent Z-Grill stamp for $2.2 million.

But even if a collection isn't driven by dreams of monetary gain, shouldn't it at least provide some pleasure -- whether it's Pez dispensers, Manolo Blahniks or, if you're like Jay Leno, antique motorcycles? Are we really having fun if 60 percent of us admit to going through our stash of e-mail on vacation (and 4 percent to checking it in the bathroom)?

There are a lot of theories as to why people hoard certain things or form collections of others. The psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger views collecting as a sort of security blanket -- a "relentless and intrinsically narcissistic aim . . . to help undo traumata during the formative years." Stanley B. Messer, dean of the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, says collectors are responding to the inevitable and unavoidable disorder of everyday life.

Others, like blogger Chip Rowe, point to the leaving-something-behind theory: "Collecting stuff is like trying to find anchors to keep you from slipping toward death." At some point, though, he theorizes, we have to decide we don't need the baggage. "Let's face it, unless you're famous, who wants your kindergarten numbers exercises?"

I didn't save those, good for me. In fact, I don't have much saved at all, except for the stuff my Dad snatched from my trash pile or guilted me into keeping and squirreled away in my parents' basement for "later." Which makes my only collection all those e-mails in the deleted folder of my inbox. I wonder what I could get on eBay for 2,489 perfectly preserved castoff messages?

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Catherine Getches, a writer living in California, might collect things if she didn't move so often.

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