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Excerpt From "The Chotchky Challenge"

by Barry Dennis


The following excerpt is taken from the book The Chotchky Challenge: Clear the Clutter from Your Home, Heart, and Mind…and Discover the True Treasure of Your Soul by Barry Dennis. It is published by Hay House (Available Apr. 30, 2012) and available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com .

Chapter 1

Small Plastic Gophers

When slavery existed in America, it was against the law to teach slaves to read or write. Ignorance is enslaving. That’s how powerful words are. In the Bible, the Word is given credit for the beginning of all creation: “In the beginning was the Word.” Words give us an ability to have power over what they represent. So if we don’t have a word for something, we are ignorant. We have no power over it. We don’t recognize it—like a stranger’s face in a crowd, it is invisible to us. The word Chotchky gives us power over something that we didn’t even know was enslaving us. For clarification, I give you the Small Plastic Gopher.

There’s a reason they call them gift shops. There’s nothing in them one would actually want to keep.

The Subtle, profound, and deeper meaning of the word was revealed to me after I bared my soul to my good friend Dr. Harold Bloomfield. Harold is a direct descendent of Moses. I figure if you’re going to bare your soul to someone, it may as well be a distant cousin of the author of the Ten Commandments. I told Harold about that morning with my son and how I felt that it was all connected to something—some “thing” I couldn’t put my finger on. As I tried to put words to my emotions, he interrupted me with an urgent yet downtrodden, almost defeated look on his face. He glanced at me and then looked at the floor, unable to hold eye contact as if there was something he knew but wasn’t sure if he was allowed to speak it. For quite some time, he stared at his feet where his toes sat still at the end of his Birkenstocks. Then he lifted his hand, motioning me to be silent.

I responded by saying nothing.

In a whispered tone, he said, “Barry, you’re talking about . . . Chotchky.”

I was taken aback. I knew he was right even though I didn’t know what he was talking about. My soul screamed, Aha! That’s it! I knew this was big. Bigger than the two of us put together (which would be over 12 feet tall and tip the scales at nearly 400 pounds—something had to be done!).

It turns out that his familiarity with the word is rooted in the fact that it is of Yiddish origin, a Jewish term. Since Harold is related to Moses, he would know such things. At this point, I figured it must have something to do with “Thou shall not . . .” something or other. Today I can clearly see that all of the Ten Commandments were Moses’s effort to squelch Chotchky desires. After Harold gave me a bit of a history lesson, I desperately asked, “Well, what is it? What is Chotchky exactly?”

Again with the downtrodden look, he shook his head. “Barry, no one really knows . . . and yet we all know.”

What Harold was saying is that there’s something about Chotchky we’re in denial of. It is the elephant in the room, and he’s wearing a skirt.

It has been said that ignorance is bliss, and in some ways that may be true. But when we apply that wisdom to Chotchky, all we get is a whole lot of wasted time, money, and energy. When those three things have been wasted, we have wasted nothing less than life itself.

In an effort to get a true definition, Harold suggested I call one of his good Jewish friends, Rev. Dr. Jeanine Behrens in New York City.

“Hello, Jeanine. It’s Barry, from Oregon. I have a question for you and, given your Jewish heritage, I thought you might have an answer. What is Chotchky?”

She hesitated for quite some time on the phone. I can only imagine that she, too, would have been unable to hold eye contact, starring at her feet, toes motionless at the end of her heels. I can’t prove this. I just think so.

Then she responded, “Oh, well, you know . . . it’s just stuff . . . stuff that gets out of control. I don’t know. Let me call my mother and father.”

So while I was on the line, she called her parents on her cell phone. “I’ve got this guy on the line from Oregon who wants to know what Chotchky is.” Her father paused, probably looked at his feet in slippers, and then replied, “Oh, well, you know . . . it’s just stuff. Trinkets. It’s odds and ends—collectibles with no real value. Other stuff, too. It’s hard to say. It goes on and on.”

You see, no one could fully put a finger on it, which is why we must get a grip on it!

We stood there speechless. Befuddled. After a mutually acceptable length of silence, his Birkenstocks began walking as he nearly sang, “Let’s go find some Chotchky!”

I was excited and yet filled with trepidation as we hopped in the car on this mystifying mission. No sooner than Dorothy could have clicked her ruby red slippers, we stood before the mother lode: “Junk Bros. Antique Mall.” There was only one other person walking the cluttered aisles. She had on a Big, Floppy, Flowered Sun Hat, the kind ladies wear at the Kentucky Derby. It bounced up and down just over the top of the display racks like a bobber in a lake when a fish is nibbling. The floppiness of the hat covered just below her eyes and cast a formidable shadow over her nose, mouth, and chin, leaving her mysteriously faceless. For a fleeting moment I wondered how, or even if, she could see. The three of us moved through the aisles in a way that, from Google Earth, would have looked like a giant game of Ms. Pac-Man.

Suddenly Harold stopped. His eyes lit up as he pointed in a northeasterly direction and said, “Now, that is Chotchky.” And there it sat: a Small Plastic Gopher on a dusty glass shelf.

I, in no way, wish to offend any Small Plastic Gopher collectors . . . but really. Why? Who in their right mind . . . ? We picked it up and looked at it. Who would ever manufacture such a thing? Who would spend money on it? Who would put this in their house? Who would buy it as a gift? And when you bought it, would you use paper or plastic? If it were a gift, how would you present it to someone?

Husband: “Honey, close your eyes. You won’t believe what I got you . . . okay, open your eyes!”

Wife: “What is it?”

Husband: “What do you mean, ‘What is it’? It’s a Small Plastic Gopher. Come on.”

Wife (long pause, followed by a confused and fed-up look): “That’s it. I want a divorce!”

Harold and I laughed our heads off. It can’t be! Then, for a moment, we became Small Plastic Gopher collectors.

“Harold,” I remarked in a highbrow tone, “This is a nice Small Plastic Gopher. I mean, I’ve seen some plastic gophers in my day, but this one. Look at the lack of detail. It’s almost van Gogh–like. Why aren’t there more Small Plastic Gophers on Earth?”

As we placed it back on the shelf and began walking away, we felt a great sense of satisfaction, knowing we had found possibly the most useless, worthless thing ever made. And for me, it was an epiphany. I finally understood. The only word that could describe it was . . . Chotchky.

Then the unthinkable happened.

The woman in the Big, Floppy, Flowered Sun Hat approached the Small Plastic Gopher. Slowly, at first. Cautiously, like one might approach an extraterrestrial after it proclaimed, “We come in peace.” Looking at it. “Mole-ing” it over. I’m sure she’d heard us talk about its incredible “lack of detail” and other endearing qualities. Then she picked it up, walked over to the checkout stand and, well, put actual money on the counter for the gopher. She bought it. She selected paper for the bagging. (Apparently the hat did impair her vision.)

Now that piece of plastic is in her house taking up valuable space. Or maybe it was a gift she gave to a friend, telling her she overheard “collectors” or “experts” saying it was a masterpiece.

Who knows? Whatever the case, I couldn’t believe my five senses.

Suddenly, it all began to make sense. I began to see. Anything and everything has the potential to be or transition into a Small Plastic Gopher. Something that has no use whatsoever. No intrinsic or even artistic value. Something that simply takes up space. And yet because it exists, because it is, we justify a place for it in our lives. Because, well, it is “As seen on TV,” or we’ve heard “experts” or “celebrities” extol its virtues. Therefore, we must need it. There’s this subtle yet clear line, and once it’s crossed there’s no going back.


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