America, our possessions are ruining us. Even as you read these words, container ships are churning through the waters of the Pacific, carrying the candle holders and tea strainers and duvet covers and coffee tables that will appear in front of you in Target, flooding your brain with dopamine, rewarding your anxious caveman soul with momentary joy at having gathered successfully. You will pack your CR-V, return home, throw open the door and the dopamine wave will crash, leaving you hopeless and full of self-loathing. You will mutter: “Where the hell am I going to put all this crap? This house already looks like a fucking garbage dump.”
This is late-stage American capitalism. We have gorged ourselves at the buffet altar of big box stores for decades, stuffing our attics and basements and storage units, and now we are compelled to purge, to dispose, and to hire professional organizers who will look upon our secret shame and make the hard decisions for us: “Put this shit over here in boxes. Put this other shit in a filing cabinet. And for God’s sake, throw most of this shit away.” In America, a person can have a career going door to door, administering domestic high colonics, loosening a torrent of knick-knack, cheap-jack, entirely unsatiating commercial excrement into the local landfill.
Minimalism is in. Tiny houses and clean lines and smaller footprints and labeled cubbies and joyful objects are in. That salad spinner you’re not sure if you really, like, need? Hide it for three months, and if you spend that time eating unspun caesar, then toss your spinner! Or, better yet, give your shit away. You’ll feel freer, say the prophets of decluttering, and you’ll have done a Good Thing, A Kindhearted Act, by allowing someone in a lower income bracket to acquire the hand-made clay pencil holder that used to spoil the unblemished landscape of your office nook. The cloud makes all of this easier. Who needs a room full of CDs when we have Spotify? Slide those books off the shelf and get a Kindle! All you need is a chair, a wifi connection, and a laptop.
Last Thanksgiving, a friend we were visiting offered to put a movie on for the kids. He didn’t pull up Netflix on his tablet. He walked over to his Blu-Ray collection, selected a disc and put it into the player. It was like a bite of Grandma’s apple pie, from the secret recipe she took to the grave, showing up on your plate at a random diner. The sense memory of actually owning something—not pinging a server, but crossing the room, reaching out and holding the object you possess.
I realized it then: I like my shit. I don’t want to declutter or downsize. My pasta cutter doesn’t need to make me giddy. It just needs to exist in my cabinet until I get a hankerin’ for some carbonara. But the pasta cutter doesn’t get all the way to explaining the urge to retain what I own. The objects I’ve added to my credit card debt in the shiny aisles of Acres O’ Junk aren’t usually the ones I cherish. It’s all the things I didn’t buy. None more so than the typewriter.
Seventy-three years ago, my grandfather was piloting B-24 bombers over western Europe, raining death to beat back the Third Reich. By the early 1950s, he was a Presbyterian minister. A memoir of atonement links those careers, but he never wrote it. He did write sermons. Hundreds of them. And the portable Underwood Champion typewriter he used is sitting on the shelf next to my left elbow as I write these words.
I met my grandfather once. He died when I was three.
By then, my father owned the typewriter. He used it throughout a meandering college career that took more than a decade, with a pause for his own military service, to complete. He tried a few sermons, but mostly used it to write term papers, letters, and poetry. Perhaps the typewriter had exhausted its thoughts on God years before.
My father gave me the typewriter the day I graduated from college.
It’s had even less to say since then. I’ve pounded out a handful of notes, but honestly it’s a pain in the ass to use. My weak, 21st century fingers aren’t used to slamming down on the keys. It won’t surprise you to learn that my early drafts contain a lot of shitty copy. There is no CTRL-X on the typewriter. I don’t even know what my grandfather thought of it. He might have thought it was a pain in the ass too. So why would I never give it away?
When I put my hands on it, they rest in the shadow of my father’s hands, and of his father’s hands. When I sit in front of the blank page rolled under the ribbon, I’m assuming the position they took at the moment of creation. The words I lay down follow the ones they laid before in a kind of cobblestone road stretching backward through time. (Okay, that’s maybe a little too stoner philosopher.) I know the typewriter isn’t backwards compatible—that it can’t reveal anything about a man I never knew but wonder about all the time—but the quiet bulk of it is reassuring to me.
This particular example is heavy with nostalgia, but I believe we as people need objects. It’s universal. Otherwise, what is the point of the Smithsonian museums? Why do we preserve the ratty old flag that inspired Francis Scott Key? Just throw a classy tank top in the display case. Why did Bruce Willis’s dad keep that watch up his ass? Get the kid a Casio!
Things are permanent, that’s why. We exist for a short while, build a little world in our minds, and then disappear forever. We get cancer or choke on an overcooked bite of Trump steak or step in front of a bus. But our stuff sticks around. Grandma’s end table and Daddy’s cufflinks and Cousin Lou’s gold-plated brass knuckles. They trend toward immortality, even after they’ve outlived their usefulness.
So keep your shit. You never know when it may become useful again. After the missiles fly and the warheads detonate and The Cloud evaporates, I’ll drag this old typewriter across the remains of everybody’s ruined stuff to live with the cave people. And when I fall down, I’ll hand it off to my daughter, the real writer in the family. Maybe she’ll find a few sermons left in it.