Tag Archives: Domestic Archeology

Dig that Garbage

4 Jan



  Novelist William Gibson once wrote,  “It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level  without leaving traces…”.   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  hair-dos.    

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.  A. J. Weberman  invented and popularized the word “garbology” to describe his study of Bob Dylan’s garbage in 1970.    In the 1970’s University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje  begain a program of systematic research  to study 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  that 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  underreport 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 that 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    e-mail archives,  browser histories,   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 e-mails 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  Barrack 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 re-living 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.

Based on a column that appeared  in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune