Where papers go to die

filing cabinets

Four drawers, two cabinets, almost nothing of value.

Recently I rid my house of two filing cabinets.

The brown filing cabinet has been sitting in our garage since we moved in May of 2010. Number of times it was accessed: zero. When I took an hour and went through it last week, I was amazed and slightly saddened by how useless the papers were that were in it.

Most of the papers were old product manuals for a lot of things we don’t own anymore, and haven’t owned in years. Toasters, iron, DVD player, and video camera manuals were just a few of the many I found. I guess that filing cabinet became the de facto storage unit for those unread manuals. The rest of that cabinet was old insurance papers, old credit card statements, old … everything. It was mostly worthless. I sold this cabinet for $20.

The black filing cabinet has gotten much more use over the years, but not by much. For the most part, it’s served as a resting place for our computer printer near my desk. I also have a bookshelf near the desk that isn’t too tall, so I cleaned off the top of it and put the printer on top. There were a few things of value to us in the black cabinet, but after some editing those items were paired down and stored in a small plastic container in the closet. I was going to sell this cabinet, but when I went to pick it up I accidentally broke it. I stuck it to the curb and it mysteriously disappeared within an hour.

One man’s trash …

It’s becoming clear to me that a lot of my storage issues stem from a lack of reviewing what we’ve had stored through the years and asking “Do we still need this?” There’s also been a complete lack of nipping storage issues in the bud from the beginning, which we’ll work to be more proactive in now. Instead of asking “How long do we need to keep this?” we’ll be asking “Do we need to keep this at all?”

I’m glad I was able to get rid of these two items. They probably took up 10 cubic feet of storage space, and now they’re gone. I can’t wait to see what I can get rid of next.

How to digitally archive your analog gems

the garage

Look at this mess. Don’t judge me too hard, as I’m just getting started.

My progress in the garage is finally getting some momentum.

As you can see from the picture, I’ve got several big items to take care of. There’s quite a bit of work ahead of me.

Buried in here was a filing cabinet filled with a bunch of really old papers, and I got to tackle that last night. It’s amazing the things I found in there! I found a huge stack of manuals for a lot of things we don’t even have anymore, so I recycled them along with several old magazines. There was plenty to throw away as well, and I eventually got the papers I needed to go over more carefully down to a shoebox-sized stack.

There were some things that were very easy to get rid of once I took a good look. Old insurance papers, bills of sale for a car we no longer own, and retirement information that’s worthless were easily shred. Plus, some of that had our personal information on it that should be secured anyway, so taking those to the shredder was a necessity.

But there were some things I didn’t want to get rid of just yet, but since they were on paper it didn’t seem necessary to keep them. This is where technology becomes a welcome adversary in the war against stuff.

I have an app called Scanner Pro on my mobile devices. With this app, I can take pictures of documents, and it will convert them to low-resolution PDFs. The app has a feature that allows you to hook it up to online storage like Dropbox or Google Drive. When I’m done “scanning” the documents with my device, the app automatically uploads the PDFs of those items to my Google Drive. Then I tossed or shredded the papers I scanned.

It was magical.

Want to have your cake and eat it too? Let technology help you keep your analog gems without getting rid of them completely. Then when it’s time to clean out your digital life, that will be just a few clicks away.

Box full of letters

box of letters

A box of letters from an old flame has no place in my life.

Got a box full of letters,
Think you might like to read.
Some things that you might like to see,
But they’re all addressed to me.

- Wilco, Box Full of Letters

All this week I have been on vacation, and the days have been filled with finding staycation things for the family to do coupled with several projects I have long needed to get done around the house.

I came across a box yesterday while working in the garage. It was not just any old box; it was the box. It was a box full of letters from an old relationship, which was a painful one that didn’t end well. I had forgotten it even existed until I started this minimalism journey. I went looking for it at the end of May, but didn’t find it. Then, while I was packing up for a family camping trip, there it was.

When I first went looking for it last month, my purpose was to throw it out the night before trash day so that it wouldn’t be “discovered.” It’s not that I was ashamed of it, and I wasn’t really hiding it. I simply didn’t want to answer any questions about it.

So what did I do? I told my wife about it anyway.

It led to a good discussion about it, past relationships, and the pain of being with the wrong person. She asked me why I had kept it. Was I over her?

Yes, I was long over her. I then explained that I had given it some thought and came up with the only honest answer I could: I kept the box all these years because it came at such a great cost.

And so, when I found it yesterday, I got excited. I was ready to get rid of it, and I knew just how to do it. I packed it up when our camping supplies, and when it was time to make supper last night, we used it to light the fire. We made brats and hot dogs, with a savory hint of printer ink and old tears.

I will admit that my sentimentality could have tripped me up. I almost looked them over once more as a final review of the evidence. I didn’t. I realized there was no need to rehash old pain. My heart isn’t broken any longer. I’m good.

I can only re-state my driver with minimalism: If something no longer adds value to my life, it needs to go. That box and its contents certainly had no value to me anymore, and so, I have one less box in my life.

Things are good.

The forced minimalism of a hotel stay

La Quinta guest room

Image courtesy of La Quinta, which means I lifted it from the company’s website.

Last week I traveled to Austin, Texas, for a weeklong conference. I stayed at a hotel, which reminded me of one of the things I love so much about a hotel stay.

The beauty of a hotel room is it forces you into a state of temporary minimalism.

I traveled with only three bags: one backpack for the entire conference that held my computer and other needed gear, one duffle bag with my workout clothes, and my favorite travel bag (instead of a  suitcase) the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. I quickly learned I had packed too much. My intentions of working out were just that: between the Texas heat, the large number of steps I took each day at the conference, and having my time gobbled up with all the educational sessions, I simply didn’t have the energy to put in some extra miles.

In addition, I determined I could have packed my travel bag a little lighter. In the closet was a plastic bag that I could have used for laundry service for a few extra dollars. Had I to do it over again, I would have had the hotel wash my clothes a couple of days into the trip rather than bringing multiple changes.

My hotel room looked much like the one pictured above. It had a comfy chair to relax in, a bed, a desk to do some work at, a dresser, closet, and a bathroom. There was even a tiny fridge and microwave. The TV was the only real luxury in the room, but it was nice to have. The first channel on the TV had a computer generated image of the ocean with sounds of waves playing in the background. I would turn it on and fall asleep to that almost every night.

All of that was enough. It wasn’t too much, and it wasn’t too little, it was enough.

At home, we’re still plowing away on our journey toward minimalism. I’ve been systematically working my way through the garage — easily one of the worst offenders to minimalism in our home — with the goal of having a garage sale in early August after we’ve sorted through all we own. I’m excited to see how we end up at the end of the summer. I predict good things to come.

But I keep thinking back to that hotel room. Why own more than that? I feel calm and stable in environments with less, so why have more?

It is difficult for me to pare down. I find it very challenging. But when I see what the other side might look like, and how it makes me feel, I have hope.

Minimal birthday

Today is my 38th birthday.

To celebrate, I was with family after returning from a weeklong work trip. Most of the celebrations happened on Saturday. I took a nap. I swam in the pool at my mom and dad’s house with my daughters and nephew. We followed that up with a fantastic supper. And yes, there were gifts.

What do you get someone who’s shedding his things? Easy — only the things he would find value in. I got some money (always accepted), Diet Mountain Dew and Dunkin Donuts coffee (which are great because they’ll disappear when I’m done with them) and some wonderful, handmade items from my daughters and nephew. Those are excellent gifts, because I can always take a picture of them and keep the spirit of those gifts forever. I also got some bacon-themed t-shirts, a total win.

And I even got an electric hand sander, which I’ve written about elsewhere. That will have incredible value to me soon as I begin work on a bunk bed for my daughters.

Minimalism doesn’t mean you never get another thing, but it does mean that you make sure the things you let into your life have value to you. I am so honored that every single gift I received this year was something I could find value in. It’s as though the gift-givers were listening to me and tailoring those gifts to match who I am becoming.

Perhaps that’s the best gift of all.

How an 18-year-old pay stub almost threw me into depression

I thought I was doing well, and then I went into the garage to look for something.

box full of crap

Oh look, it’s another box full of crap.

Feeling ambitious in my quest to de-clutter, I grabbed a random box. It was on top of another box of course, but it wasn’t that big and I thought I could tackle it real quick before dinner.

Real quick? Nope.

As I dug into the box I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There were several framed pictures of my girls, three ice scrapers, four pens and 10 paper notebooks. There was a little bit of easily discernable trash, but there were plenty of things that needed a decision made about their future right now since I had the box in front of me.

It was overwhelming. With half the items in the box, and the rest strewn about on my living room floor, I sunk into my sofa (a futon, if you must know) and paused. I was paralyzed. I began to wonder, “Am I really going to be able to get through all of the stuff in this house?”

Sorting through it all, I picked up a little momentum: The pictures of the girls will go on the entertainment center. The appliance manuals will go with the other ones I have stored in the basement. The DVD and some CDs can be taken to the store for some cash. The notebooks and some other items can be donated.

I was feeling good, and then I hit the stack of papers.

You know the bloodwork they make you get when you start a new job? The results from that test — from 2006 — it was in there. Some random document from the job before that was in there. A cover letter that had nothing more than the address of my former tax preparer was in there. And then, the one that stopped me cold: a pay stub from my dirty, grimy (but fun), blue collar, mid-college, summer of ’96 job was in there, too.

pay stub image

It’s a pay stub from a blue collar job I worked at almost 18 years ago. Seriously?

One pay stub, and it almost sent me into a complete depression. Why? It had my parents’ home address on it. That means this one, worthless piece of paper that had my social security number on it and my hourly wage of $6 per hour had traveled with me through almost 18 years of moves. From Baxter Springs, KS, then to Carthage, MO, then to Joplin, MO, then to Lawrence, KS. While in Lawrence it went from my first apartment, then the Ohio Street house, then it went with me after I got married. After that, it went from our place on Cynthia, then to our place on Arizona, then to the Randall Road place, and finally to our current home.

You have got to be kidding me. What have I done? Why did I keep this? How much more crap like this is there?

I sulked a bit and walked around the room, then I regained my composure. I am firm in my resolve. The things that have no value to me have no place in my home. I redistributed the rest of the things to their appropriate waiting areas until I can take care of them this weekend, digitized some things I wanted to keep with my iPhone, then headed upstairs to the shredder and said goodbye to those papers for good.

I couldn’t tell if I was actually making progress, or if it was just a pyrrhic victory. I really have no idea how many more papers and knick-knacks that have no value to me are in the house, and especially in the garage. I just know the amount is large.

And therein lies the potential danger of home organization. When the items are in a box, you can put a lid on it and store it, move it, stack it, and take it with you everywhere, forever.

But it’s easy to avoid all the things inside the box until you choose to do so. It has never been more clear to me than it is now: I have a lot of work to do and it’s way, way, way overdue.

It’s not my job to make my children happy

The oldest daughter, Ember, was upset with my wife, Amy, and because of that said, “I am not happy.”

In turn, Amy told her that her job as a parent is to take care of her, discipline her, and to love her.

“Do you feel loved?,” Amy asked. “Yes,” was Ember’s reply.

“Then I’m doing my job,” Amy said.

We don’t see our role as parents as the purveyors of happiness. Sure, we want our children to have happy lives, be healthy, seek out good relationships, and have an good overall sense of well-being. But it is not our responsibility to make our children happy.

It is our duty to teach our children how to be happy.

My minimalism journey is, in part, because I want to be an example to my children so they might not end up with the same stuff disorder as their parents. It is my goal to teach my children that you can be happy without having an excess of things. This will be a tough sell, of course. Our society does a fantastic job of encouraging desire for the next new thing.

How many times have you purchased something and it made you feel really great? You get high from the shopping experience, take your stuff home, and revel in your purchase. New pair of shoes? Fantastic! New phone? Shiny! New car? Love that new car smell!

The truth is, that feeling does not last. In turn, we consume more and more in our endless pursuit to feel good. Eventually, we end up with a house full of stuff and still left feeling unfulfilled.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop with tangible items.

We see parents running themselves into the ground for the sacrificial cause of their children. Swim lessons, gymnastic lessons, soccer, baseball, basketball, dancing … it never seems to end. We know parents who go from one event to the other, often back-to-back in the same night and sometimes multiple evenings a week, so their children can have something to do. Meanwhile, mom and pop are time starved and stressed, but hey, they’re “doing it for the kids.”

Should we be teaching our children that a boatload of activities and a house full of things is the path to happiness? Or, should we instead teach that there are some things they can do and some things they can have that will add value to their life without bringing on stress from excess?

We pick one or two activities to sign the kids up per year, and that’s it. We find this manageable and sustainable. As for the toys and the knick-knacks and the endless stream of artwork my kids create that they can’t let go of … we’re working on it.

Purge with care

The top of our refrigerator has become our version of my parents’ roll-top desk. For us, it is the place where “I’ll deal with it later” things like junk mail, odds and ends, and other assorted crap end up.

I was cleaning out our makeshift junk repository when I saw this heart-shaped box.

heart-shaped box

This heart-shaped box contained a Valentine’s Day gift for the wife.

I thought, “Oh yeah, I remember that. I went to the $1 store and picked up some cheap stuff to use for Valentine’s Day.” We must have forgotten to do something with it, but since it was on top of the refrigerator, that wasn’t a big surprise.

I was about to throw it away, but my wife, Amy, decided to look inside real quick. It’s a good thing she did.

heart-shaped box with money in it

Turns out, the box has $20 cash and and $25 gift card in it. Glad we didn’t throw that away!

Inside the box was a $20 bill and a $25 Visa gift card.

Good grief.

There are a few takeaways from this near miss:

  • Have a system in place to handle your gift giving and receiving event. My aunt once threw away a $50 bill by accident one year. After the family unsuccessfully dug through the trash, it was decided it likely got burned up when my grandfather took the trash out earlier that day (country living means you burn your trash).
  • Even though it was “just a dollar,” I spent money on packaging for a gift that has been forgotten for months. I donated the box to Goodwill. What was the point of that again?
  • Some types of gifts might not be the best choice for the person, or, at the time. I’m sure my wife likes to get gifts, but let’s face it: it clearly didn’t appear to add value to her at that time, otherwise she might have been more aware of her gift’s disappearance (she claims that’s not the case, but I’m skeptical). Perhaps I need to learn more about my wife to see what kind of gift would be a better choice.

The main point is: purge with care. Take a moment and review what you’re throwing out, because you might be throwing out more than just stuff.

Car scrapping and the end of the Cold War

car toys

Hot Wheels car carrier and portable playset.

One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was playing with Hot Wheels™, Matchbox™ and other types of small cars.

That tire case above is full of cars, trucks, tanks, planes and helicopters that was well loved, a lot of times in the bathtub. I would often grab that case and the Sears Service Center case pictured and play in the family room of my parents’ home.

We had red, shag carpet for a long time in that room, so playing with the cars on the floor caused me to pretend that I was driving through the jungle or high grass.

If you can tell from the picture, I had a few airplanes as well. I guess I was a child of the Cold War, but only the last remnants of it. It’s not like I had to do “Duck and Cover” drills in school or anything. But we had Rambo, G.I. Joe, Rocky IV, Reagan and Gorbachev – we knew the Russians were our enemy. I flew those planes all over the house. My imagination and those metal vehicles took me places.

These items have been sitting in my closet for the last year. My parents hadn’t thrown them out so when I discovered them at their house, I brought them to mine where they’ve stayed ever since.

And now they’re gone, donated to Goodwill.

The one thing that caught me off guard about my old, tired cars and sets was the reaction of my oldest daughter. She took them off to her room to play with them for awhile until it was time for them to go. The cars no longer provided value to me, but she’s definitely interested.

So I promised her we would get her a new set eventually. What she doesn’t know is that my eventually comes with a catch: we have to get the room she shares with her sister under control first.

We’ll get there. Baby steps. But first, the parents need to lead the way. Then we can go find some cars that add value to her childhood.

Starting the journey

My journey toward minimalism began with a tornado.

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., destroying the homes of a few of my friends and changing their lives forever. I grew up near Joplin in nearby Baxter Springs, Kansas, which was also hit by a smaller EF2 tornado on Monday, April 28, 2014.

Not long after the the Joplin tornado, my wife and I went there to help in the cleanup. We helped people as they rummaged through the debris for what they could salvage from their former livelihood.

During that experience, I found something really striking about the people whose homes we helped clean: they didn’t care about most of their possessions. Instead, we ended up being on a mission to find that one family keepsake they wanted to salvage, or that couple of personal items that they hoped we could find in the wreckage.

After the cleanup, after I had time to think about all I had seen, it made me wonder: why do we keep so many things that we don’t think are exceptionally important?

Not long after that I stumbled across The Minimalists, a team of two friends who were enriching the world through their blog about a life of more substance and less things. I was intrigued, but not so much that I changed my life overnight. But it got me to think, and that’s always a good important first step.

Now we fast-forward to 2014. I look at my two children and their room, and I think I’m a guest on the TV show Hoarders. I realize how much children absorb from their parents. My life is no different. I have things in my home that I keep for nothing more than sentimental value but very little utility. I’ve coined my illness sentimental attachment disorderbecause every time I go to throw things away, I’m paralyzed. Maybe I should keep this because of the memories I have from it. What if I need this later? Shouldn’t I have a backup of this thing just in case? I would hate to just give it away or sell it, because I paid more for it and I’d lose money.

The excuses are endless for why we hold onto things.

And then, a sea change. The Minimalists came to Kansas City on April 24, 2014 for a tour of their latest book, Everything That Remains. Hearing them speak gave me a renewed sense of urgency. I need less things. I need more things of value. The most meaningful tactic they taught me was one sentence. That is to say, whenever you start to purchase something, or whenever you are trying to decide to keep something, ask yourself this question: Will this thing add value to my life?

They also offered a challenge; a 21-day one, in fact. Their 21-day challenge is where you get rid of one thing on day one, two things on day two, and so on, for 21 days. I started it in May of 2014 but didn’t finish for two reasons. First off, life got in the way and it became quite a chore to keep up consistently (I made it to day 12). But second, I found my sentimental attachment disorder getting in the way of getting rid of some items that I knew had to go.

This is where The Chaff comes in. I will continue my journey to minimalism through here and I hope you find some inspiration. Along the way, I will tell the story of the items I’m letting go for my own closure. In turn, I hope you find the strength to do the same if that’s your calling.

In the novel and film Fight Club, there’s a powerful line that sums up the problem with a personal obsession of the accumulation of stuff: “The things you own end up owning you.”

I have found this to be true, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I refuse to be a slave to my possessions and instead choose to pursue a more meaningful, rich and full life of experiences, relationships, and personal freedom.

Thank you for reading my story. Feel free to come along on my journey.

- EJG