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The Stuff of Life
Grad Student gives up Everything he Owns in a Search for Values

John Freyer's story Listen to John Freyer's story

Augist 18, 2001 — The turning point in John Freyer's life came just as he was about to hit the "submit" button on eBay. He hesitated. He was about to offer all his worldly goods
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for sale to the highest bidder, and to start over with nothing but the meager auction proceeds. On eBay, "it says, 'do you really want to do this?'" Freyer told Sasha Waters for her story on Weekend Edition Saturday. He wasn't sure, but he hit the button anyway.

A few months earlier, Freyer was tooling his way to Iowa City from New York with his car full of his possessions when, he says, he realized "the contents of my trunk were the same as the contents of my trunk the last time I moved." Something about that caused him to reflect on the value of possessions. "I decided that I was surrounded by more stuff than I need."

By the time he got to the University of Iowa, where he was returning to continue his graduate studies in fine arts, he
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decided he needed to gauge the effect that his possessions were having upon his life -- by getting rid of them.

Waters' report traces Freyer's life over several months late last year, as his idea evolved from a personal-enrichment exercise to a full-blown art project and psychosocial experiment. At the end of the report, he was still in the midst of selling his things, doubting that the project was such a good idea, and wondering what was going to happen next.

This week, NPR Online caught up with Freyer to find out. All his things are gone: he got about $6,000 for the lot. He's left with a couple of changes of clothes and his white, 1994 Honda Civic. He sounds a little more confident these days, but that may be due to how busy he is more than anything. "The last 30 days were crazy," he says, thanks
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largely to the media attention he started to receive toward the end of his project. And now, he's getting ready to hit the road again -- this time on a quest to visit his erstwhile belongings, and their new owners. This, he says, is where he will find out whether the project was a success. His thesis question is, "What happens to me, and what happens to the people who get my things?"

At one point in Waters' report, Freyer sounds a bit distressed by the whole affair. "The idea of what happens to these pieces of me when they become jettisoned out into the world -- what kind of history gets tacked onto them -- is conceptually very interesting to me. But, you know, the first item I sold was my toaster -- and now I don't get to eat toast. Bill in Illinois, who bought my toaster -- do you think he makes more toast now than he used to make because of my toaster?"

Now though, bereft of his goods, Freyer sounds more philosophical. Thanks largely to the Internet, he's gotten to know many of the people who bought his things, and some of them have gotten to know each other. "It feels good. What's really amazing is the community that's forming around my possessions." And now, he feels his belongings have acquired a value they never had when they were laying around his apartment. "My saltshaker is in Maine, salting the eggs of a travel agent there. It makes me really happy that the things that I sold are being incorporated by people into their lives. It's not like there was a fire and I just lost everything."


Other Resources

John Freyer
John Freyer

•Besides eBay, Freyer also set up a site to sell his things. He was surprised and gratified when it drew about 100,000 hits a day. He was shocked when it registered about a million hits in just a few days after the media got ahold of his story.

• You can track Freyer as he travels around the country (and later, maybe, the world) to visit his belongings on another Web site.

The Washington Post recently ran an article that includes comments from some of the people who bought Freyer's belongings.

• The University of Iowa alumni magazine featured Freyer in a recent issue.