Burdens of the Modern Beast
From Home to Office to School to Gym, Our Stuff Is Too Much With Us

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Slogging around with a backpack, a notebook and a bottle of water, you stop for a while and stare at the historic black-and-white photographs in the National Museum of American History. You know, the ones depicting Americans going about their everyday lives: folks waiting for District trolley cars circa 1900, for instance, or people crisscrossing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1905.

Notice something missing? That's right: stuff.

The people -- all ages, all colors, all genders -- are not carrying any backpacks or water bottles. They are not schlepping cell phones, cradling coffee cups or lugging laptops. They have no bags -- shopping, tote or diaper. Besides a small purse here or a walking cane or umbrella there, they are unburdened: footloose and fingers free.

Now walk outside and take a look around. People on the same city streets are loaded down. They are laden with books, newspapers, Gatorade jugs, personal stereos, knapsacks, briefcases and canvas totes with high-heel shoes inside. They have iPods strapped to upper arms, fanny packs buckled around waists and house keys Velcroed to shoelaces.

Perhaps it's because we are multitaskers. Or because we're insecure. Maybe we are becoming more independent. Whatever the reasons, we are more and more burdened by our belongings.

Take Shey Moye, for instance, who is walking down Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda toward Maurice Villency, a furniture store where he works. Moye, 28, has a swanky brown leather messenger bag full of books and things over one shoulder. He has two large notebooks in his left arm and a paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich -- sausage-and-egg biscuit -- and a venti caramel macchiato in his right hand. He just feels more comfortable carrying a lot of things. "I can't help it," he says.

Then there's Cheryl Douglass, 59, a special-education teacher at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington. School is out and she's on her way to her car. In her left hand she carries a black Lancome sack containing lots of file folders packed with papers, and, for some reason, an empty plastic bag. In her right hand: a pink Lancome sack holding more file folders, a notebook, a tennis ball, contact lens paraphernalia and a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Over her left shoulder, she carries a long-strapped purse that rests on her right hip. And also on her left shoulder, a Dunlop tennis racket in its black case that hangs by her left side.

She is a suburban Sherpa.

Asked why people in the past didn't carry so much, she says, "They must have segmented their lives, done their work at work and not at home."

She says she carries a different set of things when she goes to the gym -- shoes, workout clothes, a compact disc player to listen to while she exercises. And, when she was younger, she carried still another bunch of items -- diapers, bottles, blankets.

Contemporary life is so fluid. Work bleeds into leisure activity, which oozes over into family time. We never know what we are going to need or when we are going to need it. A book when we get mired on the Metro; a juice box when we are trapped in traffic; cookies for low blood sugar moments; a flashlight in case we have a flat tire at night.

"It's sort of like a safety net," Douglass says of the things we carry.

Cultural historian Thomas Hine, author of "I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers," says he has noticed that we are carting around more things than ever.

"Just last weekend," says Hine, who lives in Philadelphia, "I helped a friend pick out a rather elaborate laptop case that also included special compartments for cell phone, personal organizer, MP3 player and other devices nobody had heard of a dozen years ago."

The increased quantity of carry-on items for our flight through life, he says, reflects "the tendency of our society to dispense with sources of shared stability -- the long-term job, neighborhoods, unions, family dinners -- and transform us into autonomous free agents."

The Walkman, introduced in 1979, Hine says in an e-mail, "probably set the precedent; it allowed people to be physically in a space, but mentally detached. The plethora of 'communications' devices we carry are also tools of isolation from the immediate environment. And, in the words of the recruiting ad, we each become 'an army of one' carrying all our tools of survival through a presumably hostile world."

It's the perfect posture for the Age of Insecurity. We fret about our jobs, families, country, manhood or womanhood, ability to be a good parent. We believe someone is out to get us. And to get our things. So, like the homeless, we carry our stuff with us. Just in case something, or anything, happens.

If wealth is judged by freedom and freedom is the state of being unencumbered, then we are a poor and burdened people.

"We are carrying more stuff," says Celeste Niebergall of California-based JanSport, makers of backpacks. "Especially in school." Reams of stories have been written about children being injured by heavy backpacks. Now they tow large suitcases on wheels. They look like so many little flight attendants. Or weekend golfers with pull carts. Can motorized backpack carts be far behind?

Backpacks for all ages have been enlarged, Niebergall says: "We have increased capacity."

Larger knapsacks, multipocketed cargo pants, nylon slings, commuter bags, purses of all kinds -- shoppers, flaps, totes. Gap even makes a purse called a hobo for the urban nomad. PurseBrite was designed with a light inside to help you paw through your pile of possessions.

"I always carry lots of stuff with me wherever I roam, always weighted down with books, with cassettes, with pens and paper, just in case I get the urge to sit down somewhere, and oh, I don't know, read something or write my masterpiece," Elizabeth Wurtzel writes in "Prozac Nation." "I want all my important possessions, my worldly goods, with me at all times. I want to hold what little sense of home I have left with me always. I feel so heavy all the time, so burdened. This must be a little bit like what it's like to be a bag lady, to drag your feet here, there, and everywhere, nowhere at all."

The bag lady does carry a lot of stuff. Traditionally, so does the soldier, a one-man band, the Avon Lady. And now all of us have increased our portable effects, if not our effectiveness.

Douglass seems pretty effective. She has been teaching for 25 years. As she loads her things into her Honda, which is parked on the street behind the school, she takes inventory. "Everyone else has a Palm Pilot," she says, laughing. "I still have a calendar."

Piece by piece she removes bags from her arms and hands. The files and the contact lens equipment and even the Jolly Ranchers we understand. But why does she carry a tennis racket? Is she going to play a match?

No, she says. She is not. But when life becomes too overwhelming, she takes the racket from the case and the ball from the pink Lancome sack and she bangs the ball against a wall. Again and again.

The mindless activity serves two purposes. For one thing, it clears her head. For another, it forces her to set down everything else she has been carrying.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company