Honey Loves Bea

Honey Loves Bea
One of the original Buttonface dolls

Thursday, May 8, 2008

That Old Thing?

The question isn’t why I hang on to one old thing. It’s why I have trouble throwing anything away. I’m working on that, feeling more and more burdened by the crush of things in my life, but the problem is that the tendency is partly learned and partly the function of being a maker. At the risk of appearing to argue for what would seem to be a clear-cut case of hoarding behavior, it’s not quite as dysfunctional as it looks, first-glance.

The learned part is a legacy from my Depression-era mom who grew up hearing the grandmother who raised her say things like, “Don't throw away that old coat. We may need to cut it down for the kids, come winter.” It was a waste-not, want-not mentality that is beginning to find itself reinvented in our uncertain economic times. With a shed full of hand-made and thrift store garments, a studio room crammed top to bottom with fabric and trims, and racks of vintage (read: “old”) clothes in my house, all remnants of my decade as a theatre costumer, I’m well-placed to ride the wave of recycle and re-use nostalgia currently manifesting in a lifestyle/fashion movement called Steampunk. At least that’s my story today. And if global warming, in its unpredictable mix of hot and cold, throws us a particularly nasty winter curveball, I can take care of the kids’ coat crisis all by myself. I think I’ll hang on to that stuff for at least one more season.

The maker conundrum is even more insidious. Makers are, by necessity, pack rats, because in order to make something new, we have to have stuff, supplies, materials, inspirational stashes of fabric and paper and glitter and buttons and zippers and trim and brass tubing and wire and . . . well, you get the idea. There’s nothing worse than sitting straight up in bed in the middle of the night with a crystal clear vision of the solution to that design problem that’s been vexing you and realizing that you can’t do a blasted thing about it because the craft and fabric stores don’t open until 10 a.m. Writing it down or drawing it in your journal won’t help. You need to do while it’s fresh on your mind, and you can’t do without the right stuff. And what if the brilliant solution you saw in your dream depends on something exactly like those plastic florist tubes (both the green pointy ones and the snub-nose clear ones) that you’ve been saving in the kitchen drawer for the last seven years? Problem solved. Smart me. I’ve got a life-time supply that didn’t cost me a penny, and I can get right to work.

The reason it’s so hard to address “maker syndrome” is something called random reinforcement. If you run a laboratory rat through a maze toward a dispenser button and, every once in a while in a totally random sequence, reward it with food pellets when it presses the button, it will just keep running the maze and pressing the button regardless of whether it gets any more food or not. Because sometime in the past the behavior worked and, bon appétit, there was lunch. Now I’m not saying I’m a lab rat (despite a few other other distinctly rodent-like qualities) but let’s face it. If I solved a problem using stuff I’d saved for just such an occasion, doesn’t that encourage me to keep identifying said useful-looking stuff and socking it away? That’s both the beauty and the horror of random reinforcement. What are the odds there’s going to be large-scale de-accessioning of interesting and/or useful-looking stuff at my house when just this week I managed to use a wasp nest, a rock, some honeycomb-cut packing paper, and a thrift store candlestick in one of my dolls? You just never know when you might need, metaphorically speaking, to cut that old coat down for the kiddies.

I haven’t taken to disassembling non-working appliances to strip them for parts and wire yet, and I’ve actually made a healthy number of Goodwill and Salvation Army donations over the years, but it’s the tip of the iceberg, folks. Plus, I already regret letting go of a few of those items. Anybody up for a Savers run? Thursday’s the day they mark down a brand new batch of really cool stuff!


Nita Lou Bryant said...

"Maker Syndrome" also manifests as a compulsion to accumulate containers in which to store one's hoarded supply of materials. Spice jars, boxes, bins, hooks, trays, baskets, or, say, an old Tom's Peanuts display rack are indispensable items. A petite vintage Airstream advertised on Craig's List recently caught my eye. Talk about the perfect solution to the problem of insufficient closet space! I figure we could just park it out back...

susanalbert said...

I'm a spinner, knitter, felter, would-be weaver (if only I had enough time!). Shelves of stashed store-bought yarn, bins of home-spun, sacks of unspun, sacks of uncarded. My husband (tool-restorer, blacksmith, woodturner) stashes heaps of metal, piles of wood, odd bits of tools. There's even a big chunk of pecan in the freezer, which will become a vase. (It's in the freezer to freeze out the little wood bugs.) But I shouldn't complain, because there's a sack of unspun in the freezer, too, in quarantine, in case it was harboring moth eggs. You never know, do you?