When it’s all too much


I don’t know how it happened, but somehow we ended up with five computers at home, along with the attendant plethora of mice, keyboards, monitors and printers. They were given to us, or we got them on sale, or we bought them outright. About half the stuff we didn’t use, ever. One of the hard drives ate disks. Another fried itself trying to download songs.

Although I work on a computer every day, no one else in the family has much to do with the beasts. I have to drag my wife, Marypat, kicking and screaming, to answer her emails. But we had all this electronic gadgetry, which at some recent point was cutting-edge, expensive technology.

Funny thing is that last year we also had a big pile of electronics to get rid of. I know this because at the same time last fall, on a day with similar cold, drizzly weather, we drove it to the county fairgrounds for the annual E-Waste Recycling Event. There was a long line of cars unloading onto carts piled high with plastic component-filled junk. Cheerful volunteers schleped televisions and laptops from idling cars.

I remember looking at some of our computer equipment last year and coming up with reasons for keeping it: The kids might use the laptop. We could get the neighborhood geek over to reboot the frazzled PC. You never know when you’ll need a backup keyboard. Of course, none of that happened. A year later, there it sat. This time we were ruthless. No excuses. Out they went, four out of five computers, several monitors, printers, three or four keyboards. It filled the better part of the back of our car.

Marypat and I drove over together through the cold rain. There were even more cars this year, snaking out the parking lot and onto the street, with a line of flashing blinkers stretching down the block. The line crept steadily along. In 15 minutes we were close to the unloading zone.

“I hope they don’t reach their limit,” Marypat fretted.

The year before, the event collected 118 tons of electronics. This year looked like it would break that record. Some of it seemed brand new, still in the original boxes. Computers that cost $2,000-$3,000 a few years earlier, fax machines, copiers, televisions, stuff someone once felt they couldn’t do without.

We were waved ahead. “Yes!” Marypat said, like she’d just won a race. Volunteers opened our car doors, hauled off the goods to the appropriate carts, already mounded high. They heaved them around like so much trash. I remember how carefully I had unwrapped and set up the same hard drive one of the workers tossed on a pile. Sorting was over in 15 seconds.

We drove towards the exit. Marypat turned to me, big grin on her face, hand raised for a high-five. “This feels good,” she gushed. That’s exactly how it felt, like something to celebrate, something cleansing and purging. I’m guessing that it felt just as good for everyone else in line.

I remember precisely the same surge of emotion when we got rid of our second car. Life suddenly felt less burdened and encumbered. Sure, there have been some inconvenient moments juggling errands and carpooling in the years since, but relief outweighs inconvenience hands down.

On the way home, I thought about the argument people trot out against simplifying. “Do you want to go back to the Stone Age?” they ask, as if the only choice were between bloated consumerism and cave-dwelling. It isn’t that simple, or silly, but what is it that made up our euphoria?

Stuff, from computers to vehicles, keeps creeping into my life. I don’t think of myself as a consumer. I don’t like to shop. Yet there it is, filling up my existence. I enjoy some of the comforts and tools that technology offers. But the truth is that we become enslaved. We labor to be able to afford it. We fritter our days away maintaining it. It clutters our lives and homes and minds. That’s why it’s such a blessed relief to take a whopping load of things I once valued and get it out of my life. Simplification? I guess so. But what it really feels like is liberation.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.
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