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Speaking Out

Buying Condo Forces Pack Rat to Devise Clearing Out Tactics

April 11, 1993|REGINA W. MERWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Merwin lives in Burbank, still has too much stuff and spends her life rearranging it. and

My name is Regina M. and I am a recovering pack rat.

Although I am technically a "functioning" pack rat--I have not yet, thanks to curbside recycling, barricaded myself in my home with stacks of yellowed newspaper--I believe to this day I still have every card or letter anyone ever sent me. I couldn't tell you what's in my desk, but it's full, and it's a big desk. Please don't peek into my garage-- and don't open that closet!

My symptoms were apparent from childhood: I developed an attachment to every inanimate object that came into my possession. I collected everything from box-tops to bottle caps. Later, as a history student, I held onto, for the benefit of future generations, the ephemera of those times that any sane person would have set outside with the trash.

Of course, if I happened to be a historian or an archivist or a researcher I would have had a perfect excuse for such an accumulation. And if I had had unlimited space, or if I never had to move, I could have hoarded away with a clear conscience. But I chose a completely unsentimental career, and I rented from month to month.

I denied my affliction well into adulthood. Reality hit me one hot week in July soon after my husband and I became homeowners, as I tried to pack up the contents of our stately old apartment and move them to our less generous condo.

I'd denied the move through months of escrow, having trouble letting go of the apartment itself, and I'd waited until three days before the scheduled move to start packing. And then it seemed as if I were in a '50s horror movie in which stuff just kept coming out of the walls. I opened yet another high cabinet (Eeeeeeeeeeeee!) to find it chock-full of forgotten belongings to be sorted, donated, discarded or (shudder) moved--but to where?

Our new building, for all its modern conveniences, had practically no closet space and no storage area. I agonized over these nonessentials until the movers came and left with the furniture and the few boxes I had packed, leaving me to make trip after trip in my car to a rented storage locker and then to Goodwill. Finally, frantic to be done with this nightmarish move, and with the new tenants at my heels, I began heaving unlabeled, unexamined boxes from our garage straight into the Dumpster.

Later I stared dully at all the cardboard boxes in the otherwise blissfully empty condo and resolved to change my habits. Nothing would enter our home without careful consideration. My husband has been a tremendous support to me in this.

Simply not acquiring anything was easy. Pack rats aren't shopaholics--we're actually too frugal at heart. "De-quiring" was the problem. What to do with all that junk--broken vases, old clothing, useless gadgets, etc.? Oh, how I envied people who could simply toss something out. As any pack rat will tell you, it might come back into fashion. It might come in handy. It might be worth something someday.

I'm convinced this compulsive "saving" of outdated things underlies a chronic case of Future Shock: at some point you realize the world is turning too fast, and you hang on to reminders of temps all-too-soon to be perdue --just to keep your balance. One day you find yourself in the midst of your own personal Smithsonian, beyond all attempts at organization and meaningless to anyone who doesn't know you personally.

As I've said, divesting one's self of unwanted treasures is the hard part. For the benefit of those similarly afflicted, here are some of my more desperate psychological tactics for lightening your home:

--A garage sale will assure one's beloved cast-offs go to a good home.

--Massive donations to charity thrift shops are easier, since they'll send a truck around, and you can get a tax deduction, if you keep good records.

--A lot of stuff you can palm off on unsuspecting friends, who think they will actually use that rowing machine you certainly never touched except when you moved it, at one-month intervals, from the floor to the closet to the garage.

--Newspapers and magazines. Cancel your subscriptions. That's what public libraries, co-workers and waiting rooms are for. If you must support a favorite publication, remember that while curbside recycling is the pack rats' salvation, Saving the Planet can become a sickness itself. Therefore don't separate from your trash anything that your city's recycling project won't accept. I know you can't bear to see anything go to waste, but would you rather all that mixed paper to spend eternity in a landfill or in your garage?

--Broken ceramics. This seems is a pack-ratical favorite of would-be archeologists. Unless you can honestly say you're building your own Watts Towers, you must force yourself to throw them out. (OK, OK--you can glue the Limoges together and put it under a plant. But not the every-day stuff.)

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