A Well-Contained Life

From The Paris Review:

What can’t be contained? Not much. We are given the resources, mental or physical, to contain our emotions and our belongings. Failing to do so often registers as weakness. 

The smallest container you can buy at the Container Store is a rectangular crystal-clear plastic box available in orange, purple, and green. It can contain one AA or two AAA batteries, half a handful of Tic Tacs, or a folded-up tissue. The largest container you can buy at the Container Store is a four-tiered metal shelving unit. It can contain other containers.

Containers mediate us and our stuff. They create boundaries and allow our items to exist multiple feet above the ground. Most spaces are divided by containers. These containers might then be divided by additional containers. Containers form a scaffold, or an architecture. They make walls scalable and underbeds reachable. They allow you to put something down and know where it is the next time you want to pick it up. 

One of the best ways to understand containers is to imagine a world without them. We would have piles. Bracelets, creams, stick-shaped kitchen items, fruit. Small things would get lost under big ones. Or, an alternative: a line of items that snakes through an apartment or house, up and down stairs and spiraling into the center of the room. When you want to find something, you simply walk along the line of items, confronting each individual thing. 

We use containers to solve the problem of stuff. At the Container Store, containers solve other problems, too—problems we didn’t know we had. A Parking Guide provides you with a mat on which to park. A RollDown Egg Dispenser rolls your eggs. A Stackable Sweater Drawer creates a sweater-only space for sweaters. A Cheese Keeper keeps your cheese, and a Small Cube Sleeve serves as a sleeve for your cube. 

There are plenty of analogies to choose from when describing a body, but one rather insufficient one is a container for our organs, blood, souls. The problem with this analogy is that our bodies are more than just containers. We can’t untangle our bodily experience from the feeling of existing in the world. In this case, the container is not a neutral scaffold. 

Is this true at the Container Store, too? Many containers certainly try to be as neutral as possible, made from clear, thin acrylic, or a neutral-tone rattan. They sell a promise: Once you use me to sort your trouser socks, you won’t even know I’m there. The Container Store refers to their products as “organizational solutions”—a way of dealing with something rather than a thing to deal with. The thing itself is little more than the solution it offers.

And then you come to the hampers and think, If the hamper was simply a solution to the problem of storing dirty laundry, why must I choose whether I want it in plastic, canvas, or bamboo? And then you spot the Small Scalloped Edge Faux Rattan Bin and think, What’s keeping me from buying the Small Scalloped Edge Faux Rattan Bin, even if I didn’t have anything to put in it? After spending a certain amount of time in the Container Store, the containers that are meant to organize, divide, and store look less like solutions and more like stuff. Following this line of thinking is a great way to leave empty-handed. 

The Container Store isn’t safe for the problem-less and adequately organized. The Container Store is better suited for the overflowing, the misplaced, and those lacking sectioned parts. Most of us do have a problem that the Small Scalloped Edge Faux Rattan Bin could fix. Only the bravest would buy it, place it on the table, and wait for it to find the problem for itself. 

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

As any visitor who has spent much time on TPV knows, PG includes excerpts with links back to the original piece/post. The only exception to this rule is when he posts poems. For PG, a well-written poem is a lovely whole from start to finish.

PG found the OP to be such an excellent short essay that he couldn’t bring himself to excise any portion of it. So The Paris Review doesn’t suffer a dearth of page views as a result of PG’s violation of TPV protocols, click HERE to check it out. If you haven’t visited The Paris Review based on PG’s previous links, you’ll find lots of interesting writing about subjects you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere.

One additional location that will interest many visitors to TPV is the publication’s Back Issues Section. The Paris Review was first published in. While you can purchase back issues, you can also browse online tables of content and see excerpts from the issue without becoming a subscriber. The first issue – Spring 1953 – included E. M. Forster on the Art of Fiction. William Styron’s Letter to an Editor. Stories by Peter Matthiessen, Terry Southern, and Eugene Walter. Poems by Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and George Steiner.

The Back Issues Section also includes an Author Index that lists the authors and, in some instances, the subjects of every interview, story, poem, essay, and portfolio published – over 5,000 – with a hyperlink to a short synopsis of the work written. Examples are Reel to Reel about Louis Armstrong:

In a typical year, Louis Armstrong spent more than three hundred days on the road, bringing his music to audiences around the world. He always traveled with a steamer trunk designed to house two reel-to-reel tape decks and a turntable, and he carried a stash of music for his own listening pleasure, to while away the hours he spent in hotels and dressing rooms before and after each gig. Tapes being less fragile than LPs, and possessing longer recording capacity, he ultimately transferred much of his collection to seven-inch reels. He also made mix tapes of his favorite tunes. He liked musicians who prized melody, and his selections range from Glenn Miller to Jelly Roll Morton to Tchaikovsky. Occasionally he added commentary over the music or played along, and he made copies of his own recordings, to which (unlike many musicians) he enjoyed listening. But often he would just turn on the recorder to capture everyday conversations, whether he was hanging out at home in his living room with his wife Lucille, telling jokes backstage with band members, being interviewed by reporters, or entertaining fans.

Here’s another excerpt from Backyard Bird Diary written by Amy Tan:

September 16, 2017
While watching hummingbirds buzz around me, I recalled a fantasy every child has: that I could win the trust of wild animals and they would willingly come to me. I imagined tiny avian helicopters dining on my palm. To lure them, I bought Lilliputian hummingbird feeders, four for $10. Hope came cheap enough, but I was also realistic. It might take months to gain a hummingbird’s interest in the feeder and for it to lose its fear of me.
Yesterday, I set a little feeder on the rail near the regular hummingbird feeders on the patio and then sat at a table about ten feet away. Within minutes, a hummingbird came to inspect, a male with a flashing red head. He hovered, gave a cursory glance, and then left. At least he noticed it. A good beginning. Then he returned, inspected it again from different angles, and left. The third time, he did a little dance around the feeder, approached, and stuck his bill in the hole and drank. I was astonished. That was fast. Other hummingbirds came, and they did their usual territorial display of chasing each other off before the victor returned. Throughout the day, I noticed that the hummingbirds seemed to prefer the little feeder over the larger one. Why was that? Because it was new and they had to take turns in claiming it?
Today, at 1:30 P.M., I sat at the patio table again. It was quiet. I called the songbirds. Each day I pair my own whistled birdsong with tidbits of food to encourage them to come. In about two minutes, I heard the raspy chitter and squeak of the titmouse and chickadee. They sounded excited to find peanuts.