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Saving Your Stuff (by Paul W. Smith)

By the end of this decade, experts say you will be able to carry all of the music ever recorded in the history of the human race in your pocket. Today, it is possible to record the audio from your entire life, and in a few years, all the video could be added as well. Thanks to the spread of smart phones, laptops and iPads this data is easy to gather. Soon we will no longer have to decide what stuff to keep – we can keep everything. Every shining moment, every stupid mistake, every hurtful word - all of it - will be saved for eternity.

When I was growing up, cross-country travel meant long road trips in the back seat of a Buick. The music that entertained us was delivered with the crackling accompaniment of an AM car radio, and we were at the mercy of whatever station happened to be within range. Our important stuff fit neatly in the trunk, and followed us everywhere. Neither of my parents would even consider air travel; my father had enough of that in the Marine Corps during WWII, and my mother would get motion sick in a rocking chair. I was in high school by the time I flew for the first time, and I was suitably impressed by the thrill of the takeoff, the “free” meal, and the way in which my stuff magically appeared on a conveyor belt at my destination.

When my family and I moved to Colorado, Denver’s major airport had recently moved as well. DIA, as the new facility is known, is the third largest international airport in the world. When it first opened, it was recognized for its white fabric roof mimicking the shape of Colorado’s own Rocky Mountains, its efficient train system connecting concourses, and its computerized, fully automated baggage handling system. It was a given among seasoned travelers that you NEVER checked your stuff when flying through DIA.

For those who absolutely must take their stuff with them when flying, the scene never changes. The suitcase is hefted onto the stainless steel table, the red numbers flash their verdict, and while the rest of the line grumbles impatiently, the hapless traveler hastily zips and unzips pockets, re-distributing stuff in the hopes of beating the weight limit. Fifty pounds seems like a lot of stuff.

These days travel through DIA, or any major airport in the world, is profoundly different. There is no longer any airplane food to complain about, and travelers have switched their ire to the pat downs and full body scanners that routinely remind us of our dangerous world. Rather than buy a companion ticket for our stuff, we race on board and somehow wrestle it into the overhead bins. Air travel has changed from the early days of “Sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight” to “Sit down, buckle up, and shut up.”

There are plenty of theories on how to get rid of your stuff. You can mark the boxes every time you move, and toss those that haven’t been opened since the last time. Some people are successful in carefully considering each and every item, throwing some things out, and then revisiting the whole process all over again sometime later. Yet another approach is to set everything out for the trash man, and then “shop” the pile for the items that you absolutely must rescue in order to move on with your life.

The Mission” is a 1986 British film about the experiences of Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America. Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is a mercenary slave trader who kidnaps natives and sells them to nearby plantations. After finding his girlfriend in bed with his brother, he kills him in a duel. Father Gabriel challenges Mendoza to undertake a suitable penance.

Mendoza joins the Jesuits on their journey, dragging a bundle filled with weapons as the party scales the Iguazu Falls. When they reach the native camp, a member of the tribe cuts the ropes of Mendoza's burden. Symbolically absolved of his sins, Mendoza weeps and then laughs. It is a powerful moment, and no one who sees the film can fail to share in Mendoza’s sense of liberation.

There are lots of reasons to hold on to your stuff. Some of it may be needed some day, and having it on hand might save considerable time or money. Other items were expensive, and we seek justification for buying them, even though they have yet to come out of the box. To be sure, all of us have some stuff that forms a powerful link with a special memory or emotion – one that we are reluctant to let go of. For better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part – we remain married to our stuff.

But stuff is not only about checked luggage at the airport, the boxes in your basement or garage, or the weapons dragged around in a burlap sack. What you do with your Sony Walkman, or the boxes of cassette tapes that accompany it, matters little. Rodrigo Mendoza was not just casting his weapons and armor over the cliff at that pivotal moment in his life. He was letting go of the person he had become, and starting his life anew.

In a much larger sense, stuff is a metaphor for the career choices we made, the promotions we missed, the jobs we lost, the grudges we nurture. No need to wait for new technology to come along – we already record and save all of it. Imagine for a moment the feeling of cutting the rope and casting this stuff over the cliff.

“And the day came when the discomfort to stay tightly in a bud became more than the pain to change” - Anais Nin

Stuff for thought…

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is

teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara

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