Other than the clutter that is just trash – junk mail that hasn’t made it to the recycle bin, food scraps not yet composted, the empty shampoo bottle still sitting on the edge of the bathtub – nearly everything that clutters our lives once had value to us. Each item I now hold and ponder and try to determine if it still holds value to me came into my life – and more importantly, stayed in my life – did so for a reason. Yet over time, those reasons change. What was once a prized possession may no longer provide much value. Beyond simple monetary depreciation, they depreciate in usefulness. When we hold on to our things after they cease to be meaningful or useful, they become clutter. It most cases, this is a gradual process. Unless the item breaks beyond repair, it isn’t as though a switch is flipped one day and the thing suddenly becomes useless. It happens slowly, often without our noticing, until one day we suddenly realize that this beloved item is just in the way.
This is the story of three of those things: A bicycle, a treadmill, and a pile of junk.
I’ve loved cycling for most of my life. After sparsely furnishing my first apartment, one of the first things I bought was a Cannondale road bike. I’d been riding an old Takara 10-speed, and I wanted a lightweight bike on which to train and ride longer distances. I test rode numerous models and thought I’d bought the best bike for me, but made the mistake of letting them convince me to get one that didn’t quite fit me right. It was the first bike I’d ever purchased on my own, and I wasn’t comfortable standing up for myself and insisting that I get what I need. Still, I rode the bike and enjoyed it. I loved my new bicycle and all that it represented. I was a “real” cyclist.
When I bought myself a mountain bike three years later, I found that I preferred riding it, because it was so much more comfortable. On the cycling trainer, I used the old 10-speed, which was also happened to be more comfortable. The road bike languished, but I continued to be certain that I would ride it again. Eventually, life got the better of me, and all of the bikes started to be neglected. When we moved and downsized to a smaller house, I donated the 10-speed, but the ill-fitting Cannondale survived the cut. I eventually started riding again, but did so on my mountain bike. I relegated the road bike to the cycling trainer, where I used it infrequently because it caused kneed pain.
The Pile of Junk
In late 2002, Dr. Math and I had been together for a few years, and our anniversary was approaching. She had been wanting a treadmill for some time, and I had finally prioritized it and saved up enough to buy a quality treadmill. On our anniversary, I surprised her with the promise that we would go treadmill shopping that weekend. Meanwhile, I undertook my first ever true decluttering session as I cleaned the basement of some of my “This could come in handy someday” stash. Over the years, fueled by the dual prongs of frugality and insecurity, I had amassed a large collection of what to an outside observer would be called junk. Between growing up in a household where nearly everything was saved and having been a devotee of The Tightwad Gazette, I had managed to accumulate a collection of items that included: hundreds of film canisters, used CDs, styrofoam packaging, egg cartons, plastic containers, piles of empty boxes, glass jars and toilet paper tubes. (For the record, The Tightwad Gazette is a great book on frugality, but not if you’re prone to hoarding behaviors.) Of these, I had only ever used a couple of the film canisters and one old CD (as a coaster, of course.) I had been worried about layoffs, which had been an ever-present threat almost since I’d started working, and I illogically thought that these items would help us get by if I lost my job. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call this collection of “emergency supplies” a treasure, but it had value to me as a security blanket.
Eventually, my desire to make room for a treadmill forced me to realized that not only was I starting to hoard, but that my relationship and our health was more important than the stuff collected in the basement. With this revelation, the junk went out into the trash, and the treadmill came into our lives.
For several years, the treadmill was something valuable to us. It had its place in our basement workout room. Dr. Math used it to run when it was nasty or dark outside. I fashioned a stand to hold my light box so that I could get the double benefit of exercise and bright light therapy before work on dark winter mornings. The treadmill served us well for those first few years. Then life changed for us. We moved and downsized to a smaller house, where the only place for the treadmill was in the entry hall. It was still functional, and I still used it, but neither of us really liked having this large machine taking up so much space in the front hall. Eventually, I started to do more walking outdoors and got myself back into cycling. Dr. Math was forced to give up running, and she took up cycling as well. The treadmill got only sporadic use when I wanted an easy indoor workout.
We realized that its value to us had become limited and that we would be better served by some other sort of fitness equipment. Three years ago, I decided to try to sell the treadmill on Craigslist so that we could use the money to buy something else. I learned two valuable lessons from this exercise. One, there are a lot of jerks and trolls on Craiglist with nothing better to do with their time. Two, a used treadmill is worth pretty much nothing these days. Chased off of Craigslist and left to nurse my bruised ego, we decided to keep the treadmill, since we couldn’t afford to replace it with something else.
The treadmill continued to collect dust, and its primary function was to hold the exercise equipment I actually did occasionally use, like the cycling trainer and pull-up bar. Without something to replace it, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to let it go, despite the fact that it rarely got any use. It had become clutter, but I hadn’t reconciled myself to the fact that its actual financial value was so much less than my perceived value of it. Meanwhile, Dr. Math, for whom my old road bike was much too large, lacked any good way of getting an indoor aerobic workout. The pile of junk was long gone, but two once prized possessions, my old road bike and the treadmill, were now cluttering our front hall. The value they had brought into our lives was reduced to a point that they detracted from our quality of life rather than enhancing it.
Happily, fortune smiled upon us. I’d been looking for a beater bike to ride in the winter, and friends of ours offered me an old bike they were no longer using. A beautiful old Panasonic steel framed road bike, it wasn’t at all what I needed as a winter bike, but it proved to be the perfect bike to use on the trainer, fitting us both far better than the Cannondale ever had, all for the cost of some new bar tape. I listed the treadmill on FreeCycle, and several days later, our front hall is suddenly more spacious than it has been since the day we moved in twelve years ago. Using a storage bracket dug out of the basement, the lovely Panasonic is now proudly displayed in the newly cleared space, both easily accessible, and looking like a cool piece of bicycle wall art. The front hall feels so spacious that it reminds us of a dance floor. I may even have twirled once.
As for the Cannondale road bike, I’m still hoping to sell it. We’ll see how that goes.