Saturday, June 28, 2008

Just Too Much

This morning at 8 am, thousands of people surged through the gates of our island's annual Rotary Auction, clutching their wallets in one hand and latte's in the other, prepared to fight the crowds and engage in occasional hand-to-hand combat in order to acquire the juiciest plums of so many other people's hand-me-downs that they fill an entire school, a gym, a cafeteria, a basketball court and two parking lots.

The auction is always an amazing sight; I shot this gorgeous clothesline-full of personal flotation devices at last year's extravaganza; that was the year we bought the little boat we never use. To our credit, though, we did get 4 terrific mismatched chairs which look great grouped around our elderly neighbor's kitchen table -- and they're WAY sturdier than the table is.

That was also the year our daughter fell in love with the hideous chartreuse velvet recliner with the broken leg-rest; it lived on our deck all summer long and was a great party prop.

But somehow this year wasn't as fun. Perhaps it was because, having been sick off and on all week, I just couldn't bring myself to participate in the 8 am madness, and didn't actually drag myself over there until after 11. Maybe all the good stuff was gone by then?

Perhaps it was because, in the absence of that same daughter, who is off at camp for the summer, I was under strict instructions to "find something cool," even though my record of successfully accomplishing cool by her exacting standards is somewhat less than 50/50.

Since she loves sweaters I was gamely sorting through the sweater piles once the dollar-a-bag rule kicked in. But they were heavy, and they were piled 8 or 9 sweaters high, and probably at least three deep to the back of the table; I never did make it all the way to the bottom of the section I was in. And all I could think of was the ridiculous excess of it all -- so many sweaters we can't even look at them all -- when children the world over are hungry and cold.

But I think the hardest moment was at the auction preview the night before, which I faithfully attended, having driven most of the day to get back from the San Juans in time for the show.

I was walking back from the front parking lot (loaded with rows upon rows of exercise equipment, furniture, garden paraphernalia and the infamous Treasure Tent) to the back parking lot (cars, beds, boats, toilets, water heaters, doors, windows, tools and equipment) and passing through the marshy no-man's land along the side of the school building.

And there, along the path, there were at least ten boxes-- probably more --, each roughly 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep, and each filled with old useless computer hardware. Mice, keyboards, printers, CPU towers, monitors, hard drives, scanners -- boxes and boxes and boxes filled with all that stuff we keep setting aside for something newer or faster or more fully featured, or just because the old stuff broke.

I'm sorry I didn't have a camera with me at the time; words don't really convey the impact of those huge boxes piled with useless grey metal. But here's what that part of the auction looked like last year, and, believe me, it's only the tip of the iceberg.

I can't help but wonder at the conspicuous excess of that -- all the work and materials that went into creating what so quickly becomes useless. Where does it go? Can someone else use it? Are we dumping it into oceans, or paying third-world citizens ridiculously small wages to dismantle it for us?

The auction is a wonderful institution, allowing all of us to feel good about recycling the things we don't want any more while raising thousands of dollars for our schools and local charities.

But it's also a painful reminder of our wretched acquisitiveness. When will we reach the tipping point, when all that stuff takes up so much of the planet there's no room left for us? And what will happen then?

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