IMHO: One man’s stuff is another man’s “zakka”

By Ron Scopelliti

Last month I heard an NPR interview about leading a minimalist lifestyle – divesting ourselves of all the things that clutter our lives without adding value to them, and it forced me to face the cruel reality that I’ve got too much stuff.

Stuff that I don’t need; stuff that I don’t use; stuff that I don’t even like. I’ve got shoes that I never wear, but might wear someday, and ties that I never wear because I just never wear ties. I’ve got the second Elastica album, which I bought but have never listened to because everyone says it’s such a letdown after their first album. But it was really cheap at Newbury Comics (back when they actually had a decent selection of CDs), and I’d never seen it anywhere before so I had to buy it.

I know I should get rid of a lot of this stuff, but I can’t. I’ve contemplated selling some of my stuff at a yard sale, but I’m a bit too anti-social for that. Something eventually needs to be done, but not until after I get the new season of “Game of Thrones” on DVD. You need to have priorities.

A couple weeks after the NPR show, I read a New York Times article about the Japanese phenomenon of zakka, which translates as “many things.” Though I had a tough time finding an exact definition of what qualifies as zakka, a web search turned up several key elements.

They all seem to define zakka as an ordinary object with a bit of kitsch or style or subtext that separate it from other items of the same type.

In the New York Times article, Tokyo journalist Kaori Shoji summed it up by saying: “For example, a plastic ashtray will not qualify as a zakka but a plastic ashtray picked up in a flea market in Paris with ‘Pernod’ inscribed on top, is zakka at the maximum level.”

As a guy with a lot of stuff, I started asking myself which of my many things qualified as zakka.

I think the clearest example is my Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction coffee mug. In addition to the kitsch value of being from a prison (in a state I’ve never visited, no less) it has an added feature: a picture of the prison’s electric chair that appears when you pour a hot beverage in the cup. The electric chair even has a nickname – Old Sparky.

I bought it many years ago at Building 19, where I also got my “Worst Vice President” refrigerator magnets. At the time they seemed like a useful purchase, but when I contemplated the horror of seeing Spiro Agnew’s face every time I went to the freezer for a Hot Pocket, I started to question my decision. The upside is that the magnets are still mint-in-package if I ever want to sell them to a refrigerator magnet collector.

Those two items were clearly zakka, but other items are more ambiguous; like the 2004 Democratic National Convention commemorative yoyo that I bought while covering the event in Boston. Does an object have to have the sort of mundane functionality of an ashtray or a coffee cup to qualify as zakka? If so, that puts my yoyo out of the running, despite the kitsch value and political symbolism.

Analyzing the ever-increasing accumulation of stuff in my life to determine how much of it qualifies as zakka led me to a more important question: why do I care? Why the preoccupation with things, and the obsession with stuff?

Maybe I want to believe my stuff is zakka because defining it as such gives it a value and justifies the fact that I’m saving it and not throwing away or listing it on eBay with what would undoubtedly be an unreasonably high reserve. If my die cast Rolls Royce with the portrait of Orson Welles on the hood is zakka, then how could I possibly part with it?

I’ve always been fascinated by archaeologists, and the insights they glean from digging through the stuff of past civilizations. So I often think of the legacy my stuff will leave after I’m gone. What will archaeologists think of my zakka when they dig up the site where my house once stood? And what about the strange collection of Allen wrenches that I saved from every build-it-yourself piece of fiberboard furniture I’ve ever bought?

Lately, the scientific analysis of stuff that intrigues me the most isn’t in archaeology, but in physics: The now-successful search for the Higgs boson.

Without the Higgs boson and the Higgs field, matter would apparently still occupy space, but wouldn’t have any mass. Without mass, I don’t think our stuff would even qualify as stuff. And it wouldn’t matter (pardon the unintentional pun) because I don’t think we would exist, unless it was as those pure energy beings that Spock always seemed to find so fascinating.

I find it comforting to know that while most of us are going around looking for stuff, saving stuff, classifying stuff, digging up stuff, and like the late George Carlin, trying to find a place for our stuff, there are scientists dedicating their lives to simply understanding stuff.

Now if they can just find a Higgs boson that displays an electric chair when exposed to hot water, they’ll prove what I’ve come to suspect: we’re living in a universe of pure zakka.