The advantages of bandits.

Back when it was beginning to get cold last fall, I became somewhat obsessed with The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake. It has the most perfectly northernly winter-ish sound to it, and I listened to it for a week of mornings on the bus before I eventually got around to making out the lyrics (for some reason, this tends to take me a while).

When I did, the song “Bandits” really stood out to me.

Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits;
to hand over all of your things and start over new?
While we were out hunting for food
our house was being robbed.
I caught an apple and she caught a fox,
so I caught a rabbit but she caught an ox.

So upon our return, we found everything gone
which for us was no loss
and we started over
with a rabbit and an ox.

My brother left a comment on the last post that there have been “times when I’ve secretly hoped that my apartment would burn down.” While I do not at all mean to downplay the suffering of losing all your possessions in a fire or tornado or hurricane, I know exactly what he means. When it comes to getting rid of things, I think that we would all prefer a clean sweep — like pulling a bandaid off quickly — to slow and painful sorting and decision-making. (For another look at this issue, see this excellent article by a former high school classmate.)

The problem we encounter, however, is that it generally doesn’t happen that way. There is rarely a quick fix to the amount of belongings we have accumulated: we have to open all the cupboards and closets, pull out dusty boxes, unpack the contents of crowded shelves, and choose what to keep vs. what to give away. This is such an upleasant prospect that I, for one, tend to put it off until some majorly stressful event like moving leaves me with no other choice. And we don’t even own a house, so the magnitude of our problem is a lot less than that of someone who’s been living in the same place for twenty or thirty years. (For example, I think it’s fair to say that several members of my family dread the day that my grandfather’s house comes into our possession because it is just so full of stuff. And all of it has a story and a sentimental reason to be kept, and it’s going to be a very emotional ordeal to sort through everything.)

In contemplating my desire to accumulate and the reasons why I think that I need everything I have, it’s way too easy to blame it all on advertising. I mean, it works — hey, that’s a photo of a fabulous CB2 vase that I never knew I needed! — but it’s certainly not the sum of the problem.

In my life, I think that I bring a lot of this attitude upon myself because of my ongoing obsession with design blogs. I spend way too much time looking around and planning out my next apartment purchases, even if they never actually end up happening. I love checking Apartment Therapy multiple times a day because I know that every time I do I’ll get new eye candy. Sometimes I come away with cleaning or organizing tips, but more often than not I just want something…something nicer than, or in addition to, what I’ve already got.

And if the blog world doesn’t do it to you, how about your favorite magazines? I think that Martha Stewart must own four or five large warehouses full of antiques PLUS all of their proper antique-y storage devices. Sheesh, the lady doesn’t just collect pretty pillowcases: she has stack after stack of Irish linens that have been perfectly pressed and stored on their own wooden hanging racks in the attic of one of her houses that is regularly aired out for freshness and exposed to just the right amount of sun. It’s probably a little unfair to start making fun of Martha’s foibles since a) it’s easy and b) I do enjoy quite a lot of what she does, but yikes! Have you ever really contemplated the kind of maximalism (not to mention perfectionism) that she endorses? Who can live up to that?!

In the end, I always end up at the tension between diagnosing my problem and actually doing something about it. It’s easy to say that I own too many dishes or read too many blogs and much harder to take that extra step of doing something about it. (Or not doing something that I enjoy and don’t want to give up.) I don’t want to stop reading my favorite set of blogs because I don’t want to fall behind — as though I’m so fashion-forward! — and lose touch with what’s en vogue in the world of furniture design. Stating this makes me feel kind of ridiculous, but it’s true.


What to do?

What do you do?

Are there any examples you’ve seen of acheiving a nice balance in this area? Of keeping enough things to fill and decorate a simple little apartment, but successfully saying “this much and no more” and sticking with it?

If so, please share!


6 thoughts on “The advantages of bandits.

  1. I’m always struggling with accumulating more than I need. The best way I’ve found to really keep my possessions to a minimum is by changing apartments every year. I only bother to pack my most neccessary or beloved items. Though, moving every year is hardly ideal for a number of reasons.

  2. Wow, cool song I will listen to the band later.
    Hmmm yeah the real problem isn’t what you do with the valuable things (guitar, couch, table, etc), cause you can give them away or sell them and use the money. [btw, Paula’s generosity with possessions knows no bounds] It’s the less valuable things that you can’t sell for $2, but retain personal value.

    Here’s a cool idea, I could hire someone to call you and tell you something like “The canadians are invading, we have 1 hour to flee before they get here, pack your most important things and run!” Then, when your car is packed and you are ready to go out a crowd of people could rush out from behind the bushes and tell you “just kidding.” But you’d have a list of the most important things, I guess.

  3. Elise, that worked for my husband for a long time and it is certainly a thorough — although stressful! — way to do the job.

    Tim, perhaps you can just psych me into thinking that we need to move. Then I can get rid of all the stuff that I don’t want but before I get to the really stressful part you can say “surprise!” and then the job will be done. :)

  4. This is a great album. Anna and I found this last year and is a personal favorite of ours. “Roscoe” is a near perfect pop song, and the vocals on “Van Occupanther” are beautiful.

  5. This will sound counter productive but I do it by buying quality. And what I *really* want–doing my research.

    Because if I buy a shirt that is *almost* what I want. I won’t wear it. And I will buy another in my quest for that perfect shirt. And sometimes another and another until several years later when I *finally* find what I’ve been looking for.

    So when I *do* know what I want. When I want a certain brand of pots and pans or a specific work of art or a particular piece of furniture, I save up until I can afford it and then buy it. I don’t buy other things that are “almost” as good. Because they aren’t as good. And I won’t be happy. So then I’ll buy something else.

    As for getting rid of things with sentimental value, I may have mentioned this here before, but take digital pictures. There storage space is almost nil but you can still “have” the things you don’t use or really want but can’t stand to give up.

  6. Mrs. Dragon,

    You’re oh-so-right about the shirts…every time I settle for something that’s slightly too short, long, tight, or loose, it ends up being infrequently worn and the “great deal” goes to waste.

    Unfortunately, the particular pieces of furniture I want tend to be quite a bit out of my price range (even if I save) so I’m not sure that this principle will work all the time. But it doesn’t mean that I have to settle for something ugly, just something not quite as expensive. :)

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