My Life in Collections: Mussel Shells, Age 3

Practicing adulthood through the things I collected during my childhood.

Photo: Simon Harriyott/Flickr

“Aside from the fact that I did not grow up to be a serial killer, my future character was already present, in chrysalid form, in the six-year-old girl who wielded the green butterfly net. She was shy, cerebral, and fussy, the sort of child better liked by adults than by other children; she was obsessed by nomenclature; she derived a false but pleasant sense of competence from mastering lepidoptery’s ancillary gear; her conception of nature was incorrigibly romantic; she was painfully affected by beauty; she was a compulsive arranger; she focused on small details — the precise curve of a mourning cloak’s forewing, the exact shade of the red spot on a zebra swallowtail’s hindwing — rather than on larger and more important questions of behavior and habitat. Although she now collects books instead of butterflies, I cannot say that the intervening thirty-eight years have changed her much.”

— From Anne Fadiman, “Collecting Nature”

I had a lot of collections as a kid. I think most kids do, but there’s surprisingly little data about it. Much like how, why, and when people fall in love, it might be too large a subject for science — the kind of individualized infinity one can only outline in fuzzy-boundaried stories.

Or it could be a simpler conundrum: The things kids do are done by kids. For a scientific observer, this presents both practical and ethical barriers. Kids are hard to study, especially once they’re school age. They can’t really consent to the observation, and the number of adults who’d have to sign off on round-the-clock monitoring is formidable. Hence you mostly wind up with anecdata from parents and teachers, people who are the opposite of disinterested observers. I was able to find one academic survey, conducted by Baker and Gentry in 1996, which interviewed 79 Nebraskan First and Fifth Graders, and concluded, roughly, “yeah, they collect things, and they do it for any number of reasons.” Unsurprisingly, this research was published in the journal Advances in Consumer Research — in other words, by and for marketers.

My own conviction that collecting as kids is par for the course and distinct from collecting as adults owes at least part of its forcefulness to advertisements directed at children — the persistent refrain, “Got to get ’em all.” The same tagline is less appealing to adults. It sounds too much like work. Instead, gamer webforums are filled with proud declarations that the poster has grown out of the obsession with 100% completion; book lovers similarly confess that “now I’ve reached X age, and if I don’t like a book by page Y, I don’t feel guilty for stopping.” Compulsive collecting for the sake of it is, in a word, childish.

To put it more bluntly, I’m inclined to think my collections, some of which I still enjoy looking at, have been a game I used to practice adulthood in a nonthreatening way. Adult life is the pursuit of a goal with no clear end, a continual accumulation and arrangement of assets and responsibilities. Priorities, and the urgency of their accomplishment, are at the discretion of the individual adult. As a kid, you don’t have an income, not in a real sense; you don’t have a job you could lose. You aren’t responsible for your housing. You don’t have debt, or investments, clothing funds, grocery lists, a retirement strategy.

Yet money is important, and you know that. Things have prices at which they’re bought and sold, and you know that too. Figuring out what you value — what’s worth your time, or your allowance, or your storage space — takes experimentation, which may require you to fill a drawer with carefully preserved colored pencil shavings, the kind long enough to have bloomed from the sharpener like wooden roses.

I look at the collections I had as a kid, and I can tell what I thought my adulthood would look like. I can see the points where I developed the economic theories I’d later rediscover in textbooks with graphs. I can see myself not simply being revealed, but being created.

Collection One: Mussel Shells

Active: Ages 3–5. Discarded: Age 11.

I started this collection when I was three years old, maybe two. Therefore I don’t remember starting it. I remember having it, in a plastic tub in my room, and carting it through several interstate (and international) moves. I did not collect other shells.

On the surface, my shell accumulation might seem like an interest in nature, but at the time I was doing it, I lived in Dallas and near Denver — both landlocked. As far as I was concerned, the native habitat of mussels was classy restaurants. The fact that I enjoyed eating such a complicated food was evidence of my worldly sophistication. Their iridescent blackness and pearly interiors unmistakably resembled evening wear.

Since I took no care to preserve the shells, beyond scrubbing them under the sink to rinse off any lingering garlic butter, they became dull and brittle quickly. Their only entertainment value was (1) shaking them in their plastic tub to make a cool rattling noise, or (2) sifting through them to find the ones that were still shiny. Since a lot of them shattered during activity one, activity two carried a small and thrillingly noble amount of risk.

I’m not entirely sure why my parents indulged this. I suspect it was the realization that their kid was going to collect something, and this was a collection that was free (except the occasional band aid). It took up very little space, and the only real imposition on them was occasionally eating mussels, which they like, and which kept me occupied at a restaurant for an appreciable length of time.

I disposed of the collection without much fanfare when I was 10 or 11. Most of the shells were shattered or lost, and I wanted more floor space for psychodramatic Barbie tableaux.

Economic Theses Explored:

I wasn’t quite to the point of early-stage personal data logging; I didn’t have to keep a shell from every mussel I ate, and would accept shells of mussels eaten by other people, as long as I’d been present. However, had someone presented me with a shell from a meal to which I had not been invited, I can’t imagine my response would have been cordial. So let’s call this an early experience with visualizations of aggregate data.

The other key concept I seem to have latched onto early was Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption — the idea that there are prestige or luxury purchases which are desired not for their functional qualities but as a means of class signaling. For anybody who has ever wanted to wear the “right” brand-name jacket to fit in at school, this is an obvious idea — one that drives most of the consumer marketplace. But it’s a sociological reality which is ignored by laissez-faire economists and trend forecasters, at their peril.

“Surely, this overpriced object will lose market share to this cheaper one that’s just as good.” (invisible hand zealots, and also your mom who thinks you should get a less expensive, better-made jacket)

Mussel shells had all the hallmarks of a luxury or status purchase: eye-catching, imported, and something I could act blasé about while knowing full well they would never appear on the kids menu.

Since I my memory is pretty gappy for the ages I kept this collection, I asked my mother whether she had anything to add. She says:

When Romie was in first grade her teacher shared this observation:
In all my years of teaching, Romie is the only student I actually look forward to hearing at Show and Tell time. I think that was probably because Romie had a reason for sharing a particular item beyond “ I really like it”.

Which is a supportive parental way of saying, “yes, you certainly did feel that any object you owned was an important teaching aid about which you were happy to lecture, and were confident everyone else would be intrigued by what they revealed about you.”

Accuracy of Beliefs About Adulthood:

I’m 35 now and almost never eat at restaurants unless someone else is paying. I enjoy being cooked for, but I don’t have the disposable income to make it a regular habit. For similar reasons, I rarely go to events which require formalwear. I was definitely better dressed, more cosmopolitan, and traveled more widely as a young child.

I’m still an adventurous eater, though. And I wound up sensitive enough to the semiotic meanings of consumer goods that I over-identify with the main character of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, who has the equivalent of a branding allergy. I spend a lot of time thinking about movie props — whether a character’s out-of-focus bookshelf is believable, what it implies that she owns that lamp — and rarely wear anything with a visible logo, principally out of arrogance. (Part of a tribe? Me? Surely you’re joking.)

To my complete surprise, I live next to a beach. This was never one of my goals. When I walk down it, I crunch mussel shell fragments underfoot; they’re more common here than deciduous tree leaves.

What about you, Billfolders? What were your first collections?

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. She has a bachelor of science in Economics.