My Life in Collections: Stickers, Age 8

Practicing adulthood through the things I collected during my childhood.

“Everyone’s gotta find something to collect, right? I used to be a huge collector, and my big thing was stickers. I had a book filled with Lisa Frank stickers — which kinda brings it back around to my album art, actually.”

— Jenny Lewis, 2014 Vulture interview

There is a popular toy line right now called Shopkins. What are they? It’s hard to tell from the commercials. They are dime-sized plastic objects with faces on them, and they are released in seasons, like a T.V. show. Season four, the current season, includes an anthropomorphized miniscule fish flake shaker, a wee plastic milk carton with puppy ears, and what looks to me like a blue-green peach wearing a hornless Viking helmet. An older but still treasured Shopkin is an adorable miniature plastic toilet paper roll named “Leafy.” According to the Shopkins wiki, her hobby is reading magazines. Leafy’s eyebrows are slanted in a way that makes her look forever terrified. She is probably not the weirdest Shopkin.

Perhaps you have to this point been spared the knowledge of Shopkins, but they are a full-on international toy craze. They are three-dimensional kawaii Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, times ten. Every 4-year-old I know wants them desperately. Not to play with; just to have. They will be on nostalgia lists 20 years from now, the kind that today say “remember slap bracelets and Rainbow Brite?”

I was never that kind of collector. I’d like to think I was too savvy about advertising. More likely, I was then, as I am now, more interested in the pursuit of a thing than the thing itself. I liked stories about King Arthur and the grail quest. I wanted a grail quest of my own. Critically, the knight I disliked most was Galahad, the guy who (in most tellings) made it all the way to that special cup. You have missed the point, Galahad, you clerical whey-face. Any set that could be completed was obviously unworthy.

The trouble with this individualist, anti-capitalist approach is the way it nullifies collecting’s social pleasures — namely, the ability to trade an object for an extremely similar object. Man is not an island, and although individual kid friendships tend to be about individuals bringing their individual talents to the table (i.e. the smart one and the pretty one), becoming “one of the gang” is a matter of demonstrating unambiguous equilibrium, also known as: Amy March, you are not allowed to be part of our pickled lime parties anymore unless you bring some limes.

Sympathy For The Devil, i.e. Lydia Bennet And Amy March: A Friday Chat

Needless to say, this kind of one-for-one swap is not possible if you have an emotional attachment to the individual object or if it’s hard to gauge its equivalency. Or if it’s too expensive. Or esoteric. If I wanted to exchange shy repartee with kids I didn’t know very well as we bartered around a lunch table, I needed to find a fad I could live with.

Collection Three: Stickers

Active: Ages 8–9. Discarded: Unknown.

Sticker collecting was my attempt to date the guy who checks all the right boxes. They were everything I required: cheap, pretty, varied, freely traded. They took up almost no space. I hoped I would learn to love them. It was the heyday of both Lisa Frank and Pizza Hut promotional giveaways, as good a time as any to be swept up in the romance of adhesive paper. I set myself up with a plastic-paged puffy binder and dove in.

I already had a lot of stickers to work with, chiefly because it’s not fair to call stickers a fad. They’ve been a staple of doctors’ offices, teachers’ desks, and favorite aunties’ purses for several decades. Adults like to dispense stickers for about the same reason I thought they’d suit me: They cost almost nothing but communicate a clear message about how “gold star” or “Great Job!!!” or “kitten curled up in a sunflower” the prizewinner has revealed herself to be. And perhaps because adults so often use them as a reward — for getting a shot, for potty training, for acing a spelling quiz, and in science experiments — kids understand stickers as scrip. Not money, exactly, but a form of payment which can perhaps be redeemed for future benefits if saved in a chart.

What Trying to Bribe Babies Teaches Us About Human Nature

The problem with my sticker collecting plan? I didn’t care about stickers. It might be fair to say I actively disliked them. They were sticky. They left a residue. Their edges accumulated furry rims of dust and hair. They wrinkled. They discolored. They covered part of a document which might more profitably be used for a drawing, or the beauty of a handwritten word.

From a compositional standpoint, a sticker-filled page was noise, static — no place for the eye to rest. They resisted customization. They told no story. Although I might sometimes like a sticker, its placement next to another one left it diminished. The problem was more acute the more beautiful the individual sticker was; I could contentedly fill a page with bright-colored circles, but a glittery scratch-and-sniff ice cream cone demands the crowd stand back — even a crowd of clown-hatted dinosaurs.

Scratch and Sniff Vanilla

I have no memories of actually trading anything in my collection, although I absolutely must have, because I remember clearly which stickers were more desired — furry stickers, large stickers with irregular borders, combinations of words and hamburgers. I personally preferred small geometric animals, and abhorred fuzziness, which exacerbated stickers’ pre-existing proclivity for dust-collection. I also recall, without the benefit of specificity, that my tendency to keep stickers “loose” for easy trading (and because I did not like sticking them to things) was viewed with suspicion. Could my stickers be considered desirable album additions if I transparently lacked desire for them? What was my end game?

I quickly excused myself from the whole endeavor, despite early and sustained collecting success. (My ambiguous motives and lack of attachment had given me a trading advantage, though not a social one.) I’m not sure what fate befell the sticker binder. I kept it on my bedroom bookshelf until I was perhaps 14, for much the same reason people hold on to bad wedding gifts; my dislike of it seemed disloyal. It was a relief when I had to remove it to make room for more paperbacks. It might be in my parents’ attic, or it might be in a landfill. It was royal blue, with a picture of a goose on the front.

Economic Theses Explored:

When you’ve grown up in a non-authoritarian capitalist democracy, as I have, it’s second nature to think of economic transactions as two (or more) parties seeking mutually beneficial outcomes. You get money and I get my roof fixed. I drive out of my way to pick you up for work, and you make sure your iPhone is loaded with MP3s I haven’t heard.

It’s not just Ayn Rand who thinks in terms of self-interest and equilibrium; it’s the underlying idea of basically any monetary philosophy tracing back to Adam Smith. It’s why we say things like “fair trade coffee” and expect listeners to agree that coffee growers should get a benefit for their labor that reflects our enjoyment of the end product.

This is core moral stuff, even for kids, who reserve the most outrage for the cry “it’s not fair.” Friendships, romantic relationships, longstanding business arrangements — they need to have some kind of parity or they’ll fall apart. It is known. Any counterexample implies coercion — monopoly power, predatory lending, hush money — evil stuff we fight through (self-interested) collective action in the form of government regulation. Simple.

Weird.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt my mom made me a sandwich because she thought I was going to help her out later. Sure, I can make up some kind of reason it’s self-serving — something about long-term investment, or genetic propagation strategy, or avoidance of sanction (or screaming fit) — but come on. Other moms also made me sandwiches; a kid’s at your house and is hungry, you make a sandwich. And this, as kids, is the economic environment in which we accumulate most of our experiences. It’s not a market of mutually beneficial trades. It’s a web of dependencies between manifestly unequal players.

Sticker trading was my first attempt to transition from a centrally-planned home environment to full capitalism. From a standpoint of GSP (Gross Schoolyard Product), it was an unqualified success. Not only did I bring a steady supply of new stickers to the trading floor, thanks to an uninterrupted lack of cavities and my ability to exceed library book-reading goals, but since I enjoyed making deals more than I liked holding stickers, I was a natural low-commission broker for other kids.

As my younger sister notes, “I remember looking through your book of stickers, but I don’t remember you ever looking through your book of stickers, or sticking stickers in it. Maybe that was something you did at school. It’s definitely not something you did at home.” Of course not. The fact that my holdings were sticker-denominated was incidental.

Unfortunately, when it came to building lasting relationships, or social stability on the playground, the sticker collection was a bust. I very rarely experienced trades where everyone felt happy. Or where anyone felt happy, thanks to the endowment effect.

Accuracy of Beliefs About Adulthood:

As an adult, I have tended to work in fields where my contributions are hard to quantify, in places where my level of compensation has less to do with my skills or effort than with the personality of my employer. In other words, I have tended to work in any field at all. Grownups, it turns out, are not rational economic actors negotiating to maximize mutual benefit in a free market. At least 3/5 of adulthood is making sandwiches for an unhelpful kid, also known as anarcho-communism. Which I could have easily gleaned from direct experience were I not blinded by theory.

The anthropologist David Graeber (who is an anarchist and one of the intellectual heavyweights behind the Occupy movement, but also an anthropologist) wrote a heavily-researched book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years which debunks the idea that a widespread barter economy ever existed and evolved into currency; his examples of high-functioning historical non-monetary civilizations are helpful (and reassuring) if you’re trying to imagine what might emerge after a banking system collapse. However, the thing that caught my attention came up in a conversation between Graeber and Rebecca Solnit that was published in Guernica.

Rebecca Solnit: In a piece from one of my disaster magazines, an anthropologist went to Kenya and an affluent herdsman offered to kill a goat and roast it for a feast in his honor. The anthropologist said, “Oh, that’s great, thank you so much. What a great compliment.” And then the herdsman borrowed the goat from a really poor guy and the anthropologist asked, “What are you doing?” It took him another year of being in the community to realize that the herdsman was creating a web of mutual — I’m trying to avoid using the horrible financial language that is so reductive — but essentially, that the rich man now owed the poor man something that the poor man could collect when times got tough and it pulled him into the community, it connected him.

Graeber replies with an anecdote from central Nigeria; one of the locals takes a visiting anthropologist aside and explains that she must never give a gift that’s equivalent to one she’s been given; she must always aim to reciprocate too much or not enough. An equal exchange would be a signal that she wanted to end the relationship: you owe me nothing, I owe you nothing, we don’t need to see each other again.

As a woman — as somebody from a gender which has historically been burdened with disproportionate uncompensated work — I am not so quick to write off equilibrium. But Graeber’s example holds true according to my sticker-trading experience. If I gave somebody too much, or too little, we kept talking. If I got a really great sticker from somebody, and gave them back a really great sticker, it didn’t make us friends — or even more likely to swap next time I had a really great sticker.

When you think about it, the oft-repeated comic strip gag about an overly polite kid writing a thank you card for a thank you card (and then getting a thank you for the thank you for the thank you, ad infinitum) isn’t exactly a joke. It’s the story of a kid who has figured out how to maintain a long correspondence — a kid who has fundamentally understood the purpose of the gift.

I’m still a person who likes to juggle resources and figure out logical trades and triple bottom line win-win-wins, but these days I’m less surprised when people ignore them in favor of the same inefficient and exhausting (non-optimal!) established systems. More usefully, I’m able to hang out with people with a lot more or a lot less money than me without feeling hierarchical pressure. We don’t have to be equals to be friends, as long as neither of us crowds the other one out.

I’ve loaned money to close friends, which you’re not supposed to do, and I’ve mostly been paid back, but sometimes I haven’t, and in neither case has it been uncomfortable or made us avoid each other. I’ve gracefully accepted “too expensive” gifts I could never afford to repay, with the understanding that I don’t particularly have to. Not all the time.

However, the most direct, lasting beneficial effect of my sticker collection has been the choice to emphatically sidestep any involvement in collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering. “But you like collections and cards! And it’s art!” I’ve been offered dozens of free decks, with the promise that I’ll like them once I play a little more. Nope. I’ve been down that road. The heart ignores what it ignores.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and The Toast. 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.

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