I greatly admire people who collect things. Stamps, Happy Meal toys, first editions of Stephen King novels, salt & pepper shakers: anything really (well, perhaps not cats). The idea of hunting for that one thing that will make your collection complete, to order everything neatly and to make sure it won’t get damaged, to be able to show people around your house and say: “All of this was gathered by me. Isn’t it beautiful?” It appeals to me. Unfortunately, I completely suck at starting a collection. I tried, many times. At first, opportunistically: I told everyone I collected sugar packets, but I was busted one day when my mom entered my room and found me in a wild sugar frenzy, tearing open packets and pouring them down my throat. After my stash was taken away from me I turned to stamps, but I was in way over my head: there are just too many stamps, and I had no idea where to begin. I tried to focus on stamps with animals on them, but even that subset was overwhelming, there were about 8 million stamps with butterflies on them alone.
When I abandoned the world of philately (roughly around the time my first book of stamps was full) I turned to my brother for guidance. He was my shining example, since he started a very succesful collection of cans some years before. I’m not sure where he first picked up the idea, but one day at the local swimming pool we all had to help him collect empty soda cans, and it took off from there. At first he collected all sorts of cans, but he quickly learned to specialize: soda cans became his domain. He subscribed to newsletters and we attended many trade sessions, where I was in turn fascinated and horrified: these people worshiped at the aluminum altar. At first, the entire family was on the lookout, we dug through trash cans on holidays, looking for that special can, and at one point my father even had the Minister of Agriculture helping him during a business trip. But as his collection grew, our ability to help diminished: we were out of our depth, since we didn’t have easy access to that special set of Olympic Coca-Cola cans that was available for 1 day in the spring of 1976. The cans we found him were not good enough, since real collectors do not open the tab, but instead punch a hole in the bottom with an ice pick and drain it of its contents, so the can remains in pristine condition. With my sugar addiction still firmly in place I thought this was an enormous waste of good soda, and I volunteered to help drink it all, but my mother firmly prevented this.
And one day, almost as suddenly as my brother started his collection, he quit. He placed an ad in one of the newsletters, and a slightly smudgy man came by and took all of it away. My brother’s room, which looked so neat and colorful with rows and rows of cans, now seemed so desolate. He shrugged and said he had grown out of it, and his empty walls were soon covered with scantily clad ladies, but I felt bereft. Even though I couldn’t commit to a collection of my own, I was by proxy very proud of his: at least someone in this family knows how to gather stuff and display it in an orderly fashion! But now we were just ordinary again. What did we have to show visitors? How could I impress neighbors and friends?
I went back to half-heartedly starting collections of my own, most notably comic books in my teens, but I discovered that no matter how hard you try, you can never complete it, unless you focus on an extremely small set. And where’s the fun in that? Collections need to be vast, in my opinion. You always start half-way, and you either have to work your way back to the beginning (and that is when you have to start donating essential organs in order to be able to pay for it), or you have to accept that you can only move forward and can still build up an impressive collection from there. But I can’t. It’s the same reason I can’t watch soap operas on television: I need to know it will end somewhere. My mind can’t accept the idea that it could just go on and on and it will never be completed, there’s always something you can’t purchase anymore or a new set is coming out. Why bother starting something that you can’t finish? Then it’s just junk that takes up a lot of room: best to focus your energy on other things.
I like to say I have made my peace with my inability to collect. I think of how much time, money and space it saves me, and I pride myself on being sensible. But every once in a while, when I have more than 6 things that are alike, I catch myself thinking: perhaps I can find more of these. And I wonder how a display case would look in my living room…