The most obvious of these traces are photo albums and home movies. When arranged chronologically, we can actually see ourselves moving through time and space, sort of like those time-lapsed science movies back in school showing how plants grow. Looking at
old images of himself, talk show host Jay Leno seems proud of how he looked as a
young comic, and David Letterman jokes about his full head of curly hair.
Sometimes, however, this can be more like watching the picture of Dorian Gray
deteriorate before our eyes.
I remember we once watched a compilation of Barbara Walter’s past interviews on television, and the thing that stood out the most was how her hair styles changed over the years. As she commented herself, it was mostly a retrospective of hairdos.
In a sense, such photos and films serve as the illustrations in the ongoing stories of people’s lives, showing where they have been, and perhaps where they are going. Family
therapists occasionally use such media to explore family relationships and
dynamics, following the lead of Canadian psychologist Judy Weiser, who pioneered
photography in psychotherapy back in 1970s.
There are also other personal traces that we leave behind. In the 1970s, University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje described how our garbage can be used to gain insight into our behavior and relationships. He found that the things people tell interviewers are often inconsistent with the record their trash leaves behind.
For example, people frequently claimed they eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but their garbage tells a very different story. Rathje says that garbage never lies. In his book, “Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage,” he calls the tendency to under-report the amount of junk food consumed and over-report the amount of low-calorie foods eaten the “Lean Cuisine Syndrome.” Most people admit to drinking only about half the amount of alcohol they actually consume, according to their garbage. In the “Good Provider
Syndrome,” heads of households overestimate the total amount of food their families consume.
I find myself constantly throwing away important documents, necessitating digging through our garbage. We rarely drink coffee, but is seems like every time I have to rummage through the trash, to find the water bill, there is an abundance of coffee grinds. Also it appears that much of our diet consists of eggs and things covered in tomato sauce. Poking around in your trash gives you some insight into your diet, purchasing habits and family priorities.
“Middens” is the technical name that archeologists have given to such informative trash heaps. Besides looking at the photographic record and plowing through the garbage, there are several other middens that are “ripe” for practicing what’s been called “domestic archaeology.”
Things like a loaded dishwasher or a pile of dirty laundry can serve as mini-middens. Sorting your dirty clothes can tell you all sorts of things about what you’ve been up to
over the past week.
How hard did you work? Did you go anywhere special? What was the weather like? Or in my case, what did I have for breakfast on Tuesday morning? All of these questions and much more can be answered in the laundry room. You can even tell if it is cold or allergy season by the amount of shredded Kleenex that ends up strewn over the clothing.
As technology has advanced, digital middens are now found in many places, such as
email archives, browser histories and computer recycle bins, as well as records
of text messages and cell phone calls. Recently, the state of Alaska released
more than 24,000 pages of emails sent and received by Sarah Palin during her
tenure as governor.
In this case, however, few revelations have been forthcoming, other than Palin’s complete and utter surprise at being asked to be the vice-presidential nominee and some surprising admiration expressed for a speech of President Barack Obama.
Among the most important of everyday middens are people’s financial records. General George Washington’s hand-written expense account, published in 1970, can be instructive. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington refused to take a salary, settling instead for having his expenses covered. However, at the end of his service, he presented an astonished Congress with a detailed bill for what would be the equivalent of $2,665,096.03 today.
According to author Marvin Kitman, Washington’s purchases included personal items such as fine carriages and the costs of entertaining important dignitaries, as well as military expenses such as reconnaissance and even his own army’s retreat.
Throughout the war, despite the blockade of English ships, Washington continued buying his favorite gourmet green tea. Just as it is possible to follow the events of the Revolution
through Washington’s expenditures, we can also experience a personal retrospective through our checkbook registers.
When my wife Diane and I balance our checkbook, it’s like symbolically reliving the month. Each separate entry is a memory that shows where we put our priories. To paraphrase Matthew 6:21, “Where your debit card is used, there your heart will be
also.” Writer Kimberly Danger suggests reviewing your check register and
receipts for a month to see if anything stands out. She asks, “Is it an accurate
portrayal of what you value in life and where your priorities are?” Like our garbage, our checkbooks also never lie, they show precisely where our money goes, rather than where we intend for it to go.
The website Planabidget.com asks the hypothetical question, if the world were destroyed and aliens came to earth and discovered your checkbook, “What would they
think?” Does your checkbook reveal your inner self and personality? If those aliens ever get a gander at my check register, they will probably think I was being blackmailed by someone named Sallie Mae.