• 3. Reread paragraph 14 and then suggest Tomkins's intention in using the word
• 4. Explain the meaning of "the confusion of endless choice" at the end of para-
graph 19. Then suggest examples that illustrate this idea. 5. Why do you think Tomkins calls attention to groups that are unstressed (para-
graph 21) and to studies showing the time gains for average Americans?
Cause and Effect 241
Toward Key Insights
• Regarding the essay's final sentence, what type of boundaries do you think time-
stressed individuals should set?
• How can people establish these boundaries without sacrificing quality of life?
• Suggestion for Writing
• Write an essay discussing the causes and/or effects of some type of stress other than time stress.
411 Possibilities might include academic or financial stress or the stress associated with personal relationships. Develop your paper with appropriate examples. • • CAROLINE KNAPP
• Why We Keep Stuff: If You Want • to Understand People, Take a Look • at What They Hang On To •
Caroline Knapp, a humane and thoughtful writer, died at the age of 42 in 2002. She worked for the Phoenix newspapers as staff writer, editor, and contributing columnist. This
• essay is taken from The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essay —a collection of some of the best
of Knapp's writing. • 1 Stuff, stuff, I AM surrounded by stuff. Stuff I don't need, stuff I don't use, but
stuff I feel compelled to keep. Here in my office, as I write this, I am drowning in a sea of stuff.
2 There is the stuff of procrastination—piles of letters I should answer, manu- scripts I should return, memos I should file away.
3 There is the stuff of daily business—interoffice communications in one heap here, this form and that form in that heap there, bills in yet another.
4 But mostly, there is the more generalized stuff, the stuff we all hold on to for inexplicable reasons—the stuff, in other words, of which stuff is made. Old cata- logs of stuff I might want to order someday. Old magazines I might want to read, or reread. Unsolicited freelance articles I might want to publish. And even more useless stuff, stuff with no discernible purpose or future value.
5 On one corner of a shelf hangs a bunch of ribbons, saved over the years from various packages. On another, a pile of old letters from readers that I'll no doubt never open again and never answer. On my desk, a Rolodex crammed
• 11110 411 •
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
242 CHAPTER 12 The Essay Examination with numbers I'll never call (the National Association of Theater Operators? The Detroit office of the National Transportation Union? Huh?). In one corner, I even have a pile of envelopes containing transaction slips from the automatic teller machine that date all the way back to February 1988. That's more than three years of bank slips—stuff, pure and simple.
6 Yet in an odd way, a lot of the stuff has meaning. Granted, the significance of a pile of old ribbons may be minimal, but I think the things that people choose to hang on to, and the ways they hang on to them, are quite telling—small testi- monies to the ways people organize their lives on both external and internal lev- els. Want to understand people a little more clearly? Look through their stuff.
7 Several years ago, as I was preparing to move out of an apartment I'd lived in for four years, I undertook my first major purge of stuff, which provided an excellent lesson in the nature of the beast. Historically, I've been a relentless pack rat, the sort of person who keeps vast numbers of relics and mementos in vast numbers of boxes around the house—ticket stubs to concerts and movies; store receipts for goods and clothing I'd long ago stopped thinking about returning; letters from people I'd long ago lost track of; even old shoes. But mov- ing out of that particular apartment was a big step—I was leaving a place where I'd lived alone (with plenty of room for stuff) and into a new apartment—and presumably, a new life—with a man (who had much less room for stuff).
8 Accordingly, the purge was more than a logistical necessity; it also had a cer- tain psychological value. Sure, it made sense to get rid of a lot of it: I didn't really need to hang on to that broken toaster-oven, or that tattered coat I'd stopped wearing years before. I didn't need to save the letter of acceptance from the graduate school I'd long ago decided not to attend. I didn't need the three boxes of back issues of Gourmet magazine. But divesting myself of all that stuff meant much more than whittling down my possessions to a manageable degree.
9 At one point, I remember going through a dresser in which I kept several pairs of jeans that I'd worn during a long and protracted struggle with anorexia. They were tiny jeans in tiny, skeletal sizes, jean with bad associations, jeans with no place in the life of someone who was trying to launch into a healthier way of living. But I'd held on to them for years and, in doing so, had held on to a set of possibilities: that I might one day need those tiny, cigarette-legged jeans again; that I might one day fit into them; and accordingly, that what I felt to be my "recovery" from anorexia might be tenuous at best, false at worst.
10 The message hidden away in that dresser drawer had to do with fear, and, needless to say, throwing out the clothes from that earlier time was an enormously healthy move: it was part of an effort to say good-bye to a person I used to be.
And so it is with most of our stuff: the things we keep stored away in our clos- ets and shelves often mirror the things we hold on to inside: fears, memories, dreams, false perceptions. A good deal of that stuff in my office, for example, speaks to an abiding terror of screwing up, a fear that I might actually need one of those articles from one of those old magazines, or one of those old phone num- bers from the Rolodex, or one of those memos or letters or whatever.
12 Lurking behind the automatic-teller-machine slips? My relentless fear of finance, and the accompanying conviction that as soon as I toss them all out, the bank will call and inform me that some huge deposit I could once verify has disap- peared. Even the pile of ribbons on the shelf reflects some vague anxiety, a (com- paratively minor and obsessive) worry—that one of these days, I'll have a present to wrap and (gasp) there'll be no ribbon at hand to tie it up. My mother keeps a
Cause and Effect 243
• huge basket at home filled with nothing but rubber bands, and I'm sure she holds on to it for the same reasons: it speaks to an absolute certainty on her part that the
II 13 moment she throws them away, she'll find herself in desperate need of an elastic. We might need it. We might miss it. It might come back in style and we might •
want to wear it again. If getting rid of stuff is hard, it's because it feels like cutting off options. Or sides of ourselves. Or pieces of our history. And, the actual value of
II holding on to stuff notwithstanding, those things can be unsettling to give up. The movie and ticket stubs I'd kept stored away for years in my old apartment, for •
example, reflected good times, happy moments in relationships that I didn't want to forget; the ragged coat was a piece of clothing I'd felt pretty in, a feeling I
• didn't want to lose; the Gourmet magazines held out hopes for my (then sorely lacking) kitchen skills. Even the broken toaster-oven contained a memory—I'd
• bought it almost a decade earlier, with a man I'd been involved with, during a very happy year we'd lived together.
II 14 The trick, I suppose, is to learn to manage stuff, the same way you learn to man- age fears and feelings. To throw a little logic into the heaps of stuff. To think a little •
rationally. Would the world really come crashing down if I tossed out some crucial phone number? Would my personal history really get tossed into the trash along with my mementos? Would I die, or even suffer a mite, without all those ribbons?
• 15 No, probably not. But I think I'll keep holding on to those bank slips . . . just
in case. BOSTON PHOENIX
• Discussion Questions
• 1. What is the value of a personal reflective essay such as this one for writer and reader?
• 2. What is the real thesis of this essay and where is it located? 3. What role do the several paragraphs detailing the kinds of clutter the author
has failed to discard play in the full essay? Why did she spend so much time describing her stuff?
4. What does the author see as the dominant cause for why people fail to discard things? How does the more general cause relate to many other more specific
5. In what ways does this writer sustain a personal and even intimate tone with
• her readers? Is this effective?
6. How do the final two paragraphs fit the essay? •
• Toward Key Insights
III This essay provides an excellent example of a personal reflective essay. As a result, the author's discussion of why we keep certain things is not scientific. What 4110 might be the advantages of this kind of essay over a psychological study of why people retain certain items? What are some weaknesses of this kind of writing? •
In the personal reflective essay, writers share with their readers more personal ele- ments of their thoughts and lives, such as Caroline Knapp's discussion of her past
• struggle with anorexia. How do such intimate revelations affect readers and their relationship with the text?
244 CHAPTER 12 The Essay Examination
Suggestion for Writing
Write a personal reflective essay to explain what you think cause some personal behaviors or emotional states, such as procrastination or impulse shopping, for readers who may share those behaviors.
Why Marriages Fail A native of New York City, Anne Roiphe was born in 1935 and earned a BA degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 1957. In a writing career spanning more than three decades, she has produced nearly a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction centering on such matters as alienation, divorce, religious tradition, children's emotional health, and the conflicts arising from the demands of family and the desire for independence. Her many periodical articles reflect these as well as similar concerns. In this essay Roiphe examines the forces leading to marital breakup.
1 These days so many marriages end in divorce that our most sacred vows no longer ring with truth. "Happily ever after" and "Till death do us part" are expressions that seem on the way to becoming obsolete. Why has it become so hard for couples to stay together? What goes wrong? What has happened to us that close to one-half of all marriages are destined for the divorce courts? How could we have created a society in which 42 percent of our children will grow up in single-parent homes? If statistics could only measure loneliness, regret, pain, loss of self-confidence and fear of the future, the numbers would be beyond quantifying.
2 Even though each broken marriage is unique, we can still find the common perils, the common causes for marital despair. Each marriage has crisis points and each marriage tests endurance, the capacity for both intimacy and change. Outside pressures such as job loss, illness, infertility, trouble with a child, care of aging parents and all the other plagues of life hit marriage the way hurricanes blast our shores. Some marriages survive these storms and others don't. Marriages fail, however, not simply because of the outside weather but because the inner climate becomes too hot or too cold, too turbulent or too stupefying.
3 When we look at how we choose our partners and what expectations exist at the tender beginnings of romance, some of the reasons for disaster become quite clear. We all select with unconscious accuracy a mate who will recreate with us the emotional patterns of our first homes. Dr. Carl A. Whitaker, a marital ther- apist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, explains, "From early childhood on, each of us carried models for marriage, femininity, masculinity, motherhood, fatherhood and all the other family roles." Each of us falls in love with a mate who has qualities of our parents, who will help us rediscover both the psychological happiness and miseries of our past lives. We may think we have found a man unlike Dad, but then he turns to drink or drugs, or loses his job over and over again or sits silently in front of the TV just the way Dad did. A man may choose a woman who doesn't like kids just like his mother or who gambles away the family savings just like his mother. Or he may choose a
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