We’re sharing a table at a conference. Breakfast is being served. We haven’t met before, but I know immediately that he’s one of mine. I know because he’s a bag-spreader. He has more personal belongings arrayed around him than I’ve brought with me on long international flights. At a table meant to seat eight, where there aren’t enough spots for all the attendees to eat their meals, he’s taking up a quarter of the table, and that’s only because my husband has nudged some of his stuff away from his plate.
Bag-spreader, bag-spreader, what’s in your bag?
Nobody knows. I find out later that, in addition to all the stuff he has spread around him at the table, he has two additional bags stashed on the extra chairs off to the side of the room.
What’s in front of him?
A smartphone. A tablet with a keyboard. A Moleskine notebook. A composition book. A stack of catalogs, not relevant to the conference. Two separate glasses cases. A pen. A protein bar. The folder of conference materials. Index cards.
Some people might be annoyed at this excess, for excess it surely was. Across the table, I was able to find it amusing and interesting. That’s because I study material culture through history. This tableau is a solid representation of the challenge of straddling two or three eras: the 19th Century desire to keep archival records and commonplace books, the 20th Century habit of taking paper notes at meetings, and the nascent 21st Century practice of using portable “smart” electronic devices. A generation or two further down, it will feel more natural and obvious to rely on the electronics alone and see all that paper as unwieldy and inefficient.
To my guy, Mr. Bag-Spreader, all that paper must feel like a good idea. Why? What is he thinking?
I’d ask him, but we’re on a tight agenda today. Besides, he hasn’t introduced himself or spoken to anyone at our table. He’s taken it upon himself to move other people’s belongings as well. It seems clear that he really wants the whole table to himself and he’s made annoyed faces at those encroaching on him.
Sorry, bud, this is a common area! We paid to be here, too. We have to share.
Why can’t you just keep all your stuff in your bag and put it by your feet or hang it off the back of your chair? You could take items out one at a time as you need them, and put them back in when you’re not actively using them. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Back to what’s going on with the bag-spreading. Why a Moleskine AND a composition book AND index cards? Even excluding the two electronic devices? My guess is that he’s using index cards because he doesn’t want to mess up his nice expensive (bright yellow) Moleskine. But he wants to have it out because he’s referencing earlier notes? Or he just likes looking at it? Or he doesn’t even realize that this particular object is extraneous to purpose? I’m also guessing that the composition book is part of a different project, perhaps notes from his home club’s meetings. The catalogs are in case he gets bored.
I used to be like this. I was a bag-spreader myself. I would bag-spread in class, on the bus, on airplanes, at restaurants. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish and unfair to others around me. I didn’t realize that I was spending far more time than other people in interacting with objects, playing with my personal possessions, distracting myself from whatever was going on. It was most likely a way to sublimate my desire to just stay home, a way of comforting myself with familiar belongings and marking my territory. I guess. I can’t say I had much insight into it at the time.
It’s pretty common for bag-spreaders to drag multiple bags everywhere. I kinda still do this, at least one day a week. I have to go straight from kickboxing to one of my weekly Toastmasters meetings, so I have my gym bag with my boxing gloves and shin guards, and then I have my work bag with my tablet, pen, workbook, sunglasses, wallet, etc.
That’s what gets us into trouble with the bag-spreading. Our stuff expands to fill the bag available, and then it becomes background stuff, and then we stop having enough space to carry all the other stuff we want to bring with us.
Right now I have an explanation for everything in my bag, but I can guarantee that there are things in it that would make someone else laugh. (Library cards for three distinct libraries?). Sun block. Wallet. Keys. Lotion. Lip balm. Tissues. Headache tablets. Microfiber screen cleaner cloth. Backup battery with two types of charger cables. Dental floss. Phone and tablet. Paper day planner, for which I cannot defend myself. Right now there’s a trophy and a cowbell, and hopefully I remember to take them out. It’s true that I could have gone out the door with half this stuff and made it through the day.
The heuristic behind bag-spreading is to bring as much as possible, just in case. In case of what? I have no idea, which is what “just in case” means! This is the opposite of minimalism. The minimalist heuristic is to try to bring nothing at all, and add only that which is truly necessary. Anything more is an encumbrance.
More to carry, more chronic neck pain and shoulder pain and back pain. More to lose, more to have stolen. More to spill on, more to stain and fold and spindle and mutilate. More to detract from your fashionable ensemble and general poise. More to spoil photographs. More to trip people or bump into them. More to spread over twice as much space as you’re legitimately entitled to. Or three times. One man, three chairs?
What if everyone brought three bags everywhere? Where would they all go? Would every hallway and every room have to have a wall of cubbyholes? Would every bus need an overhead rack and every plane have room for only half as many passengers?
There were three reasons why I finally learned to quit bag-spreading. One, working with chronically disorganized people and hoarders put it into context. Two, my career ambitions demanded a more polished appearance. Three, I got a smartphone and realized that almost everything I carried could be digitized. I had a fear of boredom as much as anything else. I learned to trust that my phone wouldn’t start bulging or weighing more if I put more books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, or music on it. Oh, and then I became a distance runner and learned that I could leave my house with nothing more than my phone, headphones, and keys.
Bag-spreading can come from a desire to feel resourceful and prepared for every occasion. It can come from a desire to look polished and have backup hygiene and beauty supplies on demand. It can come from a fear of boredom. It can come from simple habit. It can come from distraction and lack of focus. Look at it as a behavior pattern, and observe how many other people indulge in it. Look again and wonder how the majority of people seem to be able to get through the day without bag-spreading. It can be done!
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.