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Learning What's Valuable - and What's Priceless

IF you were given just 15 minutes to collect a few possessions from your home, what would you choose? For countless residents of San Francisco recently, that question was far from hypothetical. Many of those whose houses or apartments were severely damaged in the earthquake were allowed to re-enter for only 15 minutes, accompanied by a building inspector and an engineer, to save what they could. In some cases they knew it might be the last time they would ever set foot inside the structure.

Poignant newspaper photographs showed displaced residents wheeling shopping carts loaded with belongings. One man, trying for a touch of humor in a sad situation, even sported a lampshade on his head as he wheeled the lamp and a TV set down the street.

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In accompanying articles, the newly homeless explained why they chose what they did. One young free-lance artist who saved her drawing board said, ``The most important thing to me was the stuff I need to make a living.'' And an 85-year-old woman who made a list of items she wanted relatives to retrieve included a cherished samovar, a small white box containing earrings, and a bankbook.

The plight of these dispossessed residents with their ticking 15-minute clocks has caught the attention - and the sympathetic hearts - of Americans across the country. In the process, it has caused others to pause and consider what they would save in similar circumstances.

This is no trivia game along the lines of what-would-I-take-if-I-were-stranded-on-a-desert-isle? Rather, by forcing a new assessment of everything one calls ``mine'' or ``ours,'' the exercise gets to the heart of what an anguished owner values.

For some list-makers, the must-save items would lean heavily toward the practical: clothes, legal documents, financial records. For others, the emphasis would be on the sentimental: photographs, jewelry, heirlooms, out-of-print books, and favorite works of art.

In one real-life test, a friend, an American who lived in Kenya for many years, had to make a trip out of her adopted country during a time of strong anti-American feelings. Concerned that she might not be allowed back in, she packed a trunk with a few possessions that could be shipped to her if she were forbidden to reenter.

What did she include? Primarily family photos and memorabilia, plus her grandmother's tea set. Although the trunk proved unnecessary, packing it was a good experience, she recalls, adding, ``It forced me to think about what was irreplaceable.''

For her, as for countless others, the most important items often turn out to be the ones no store would stock or no insurance company would cover. What claims adjuster, for instance, could assign a monetary value to a 4-year-old's plaster of Paris handprints, made in nursery school as a Mother's Day gift, or to the letters an 8-year-old wrote during her first summer at camp? (``Dear Mommy and Daddy, Guess what? Last night we had a contest of who could dress up the craziest. Well, I won second prize. I got a pack of M&M's for a prize.'') Still, given a choice between these humble souvenirs and an expensive art object, many parents would choose the keepsakes every time.

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In a nation that prides itself on a shop-'til-you-drop consumerism, a penchant for possessions - lots and lots of possessions - starts early and runs deep. As evidence, check the nearest college dormitory, where refrigerators, microwaves, VCRs, and CDs have become standard equipment in many rooms. Or check the baggage carrousels in airports and the crammed overhead bins on planes. Even at our most nomadic we go loaded with creature comforts and prepared for any contingency!

With our goods we declare our status - until something unscheduled, something unforeseen happens to remind us of the parable of the preoccupied man tearing down his barn to build a bigger one.

Californians - and the rest of us - have been shaken up in more than the literal sense, and in the process the essentials and the non-essentials can be seen for what they are. The 85-year-old woman in San Francisco who lost practically everything but a beloved samovar spoke for survivors from California to South Carolina when she said:

``I have my two feet, I have my two hands, and my two eyes, and my children, and my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. What else matters? That is enough for me.''

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