Phil Corless in Idaho

I’m a Recovering Pack Rat

Last night it took me just over two hours to pick up and put away every toy, game, puzzle, doll, crayon, pillow, blanket, cup, rock, and book strewn about on every floor in every room of the house. This morning it took the kids about 15 minutes to make it look like I hadn't done a thing. We are suffering from that popular American malady known as Too Much Stuff, and it's really starting to bug me. There's a line from a Crowded House song that goes, "My possessions are causing me suspicion." I keep hearing that in my head as I look around at the piles of toys, books, knickknacks, and things that defy categorization. The clutter gets in the way of my desire for a simpler life.

I'm a recovering pack rat, and it looks as though my kids have inherited that particular gene from me. My son saves every rock he picks up from our travels. Each stone and pebble represents a happy memory of a day at the lake or a trek up a mountain trail. Trouble is, he has no idea which rock is which, so they're all just one big jumble of quartz and granite all over his room. Many years ago at the University of Idaho, where I was a student, it was discovered that an old building on campus was in danger of collapse from the sheer weight of the geology department's rock collection. I'm afraid my son is on his way to that.

My son also loves Star Wars toys. Way back in 1977 I never could've imagined that my future child would love the film more than I did. He wakes up each morning and plays with his Star Wars action figures before breakfast, then eats Star Wars cereal out of a Star Wars bowl with a Star Wars lightsaber spoon!

Every time we're near a toy store, my son pleads to go look at the Star Wars figures. "Maybe they have some new ones!" he says. "No," I reply, "you have them all." But still we look, because it's fun and because I secretly want to look too. Me and the other dads, pretending we're only there for our kids but really just wishing we could buy them all for ourselves and re-live our childhood battling Tusken Raiders on Tatooine. Now I read that George Lucas is creating two different Star Wars TV series in the next few years. That will make my son happy, and I can continue standing in store aisles feeling like a kid again.

My daughter doesn't actively collect anything yet, although she does love her Princess gear. The biggest box of toys in her room contains kitchen play items. She has more pots, pans, utensils, and dishes than we have in our real kitchen. And her stuff is nicer too. She's also still at that age where a cardboard tube turns into a trumpet or a telescope, and a blanket draped over a chair becomes an enchanted castle.

I've asked both kids if they want to weed through their toys and give away the ones they don't play with anymore. That didn't go well. So we wait until they're asleep to sneak the old baby toys into a box bound for Goodwill. But I have a hard time parting with some of their things, especially those items that the kids played with a lot -- like the little wooden Thomas the Train engines and tracks. Those toys hold special memories for me, as I spent many hours helping my son build train tracks all over the living room floor and into the kitchen and down the hall.

Beyond the toys, I've begun to notice another growing problem. During my son's kindergarten year, we saved just about every piece of paper he brought home... The first squiggly attempts at writing and math, the art projects dripping with too much glue, even the handouts and calendars the teacher would send home. Now, in first grade, the amount of paper that he brings into the house is starting to overwhelm us. I have to be much more selective about what we save and what we toss or by fifth grade our home will be a fire hazard.

It's like that Stephen Wright joke: "You can't have everything; where would you put it?" My son laughs and laughs at that line, even though he doesn't quite grasp the wisdom of it. So we fight the war against clutter on a daily basis. At the same time, I teach my kids not to place too much value on things and to be happy with what they have. Unfortunately, I have to battle against the forces of a consumer society that tells us contentment can be found at the shopping mall. Real happiness is not found there, it's found in the memory of dancing to Wiggles music with my daughter, kicking a soccer ball with my son, hiking Tubbs Hill with my family, or splashing with my kids in the cool waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene. These are simple things that don't require a cluttered and complicated life to experience them.


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