Posted in Commentary, Lessons Learned, Politics

‘Tis the season, v.2011

So on a daily basis, since about, oh, November 1st, I’ve received about 3 or more catalogues (yes, I spell it like that. I’m fancy sometimes. Deal.) This is no doubt because I do a lot of online and catalog (sometimes I’m not fancy) shopping, and my name and address have been sold to pretty much every mail-order outfit in the known ‘verse. Ditto my e-mail address. I may have ordered one Nebraska football video as a gift for Scott back in 2003 from a company, but the experience was evidently more meaningful to them than it was to me, because they have started spamming me, along with everyone else I’ve ever ordered from because, IT’S CHRISTMAS, GODDAMMIT! DON’T YOU KNOW YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO SPEND WAY MORE THAN IS INTELLIGENT? GIVE US ALL YOUR MONEY OR YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS WILL KNOW YOU DON’T REALLY LOVE THEM THAT MUCH AFTER ALL.

In fact, I’ve begun to track the health of our economy by the number of ghosts of purchases past that show up in my e-mail inbox. Some companies I don’t hear from unless straits are particularly dire; I can tell they’re digging deep into the ancient e-mail rolls, trying to drum up business. Some try to drum up business every day, and I’ve gotta say, it’s a bad strategy. I do not find annoyance compelling; only maddening. Does this work with anyone? My general M.O. is, the more you annoy me, the more likely I am to walk away and decide I really don’t need what it is you’re trying to hawk.

We keep the recycle bin right outside the door from the garage into the house, and I usually dump most of the mail into it as I walk by, including the catalogs. I used to look at them all, and often I was successfully lured to buy, but less so in the last year or so. We’ve been trying to be more mindful about our spending; not an austerity plan per se, but more asking ourselves if we REALLY need it, or if our lives would be improved dramatically by having it. If the answer isn’t an unqualified yes, then we leave it alone.

But just this very week, I had several epiphanies about the insidiousness of business and advertising and catalogs and the consumer culture we’ve become. The first happened as I took a look at the latest Brookstone catalog, which made it into the house because my hands were too full to sort out the junk before I made it to a counter. Ah Brookstone, purveyor of clever gadgets that I never knew I needed until this moment, but it makes perfect sense to buy now that I know they exist.

Or at least, that’s who they used to be. My faith in them was shaken when I ran across this. Why yes, I DO need to blow $90 on a cheap vinyl replica advertising an obsolete airline, the TV show for which couldn’t even muster up enough interest and/or nostalgia to stay on the air.

Or perhaps someone I love really DOES need a $20 patented (patented, I tell you!) partitioned cereal bowl to avoid the heartbreak of slightly-too-soggy cereal. If it bothers you that much, you pour yourself a glass of milk, pour the cereal into a bowl, take a bite of cereal and a swig of milk. Done. For free. I’d patent the hell out of that plan if there were any money in it. I’d really like to know how many of those bowls they sell. Have we really run out of things to spend our money on, that a special $20 cereal bowl seems like a reasonable option?

But the kicker, and where Brookstone lost me forever and sent me to bed wailing about how humanity was finally beyond hope, was this:

What is it? Why, it’s a motion-activated candy dispenser! Just wave your hand and candy comes out. I am already imagining somebody whose butt is industrial-stapled to the couch feebly waving a hand in the direction of the counter this thing sits on, mouth agape like a sad little bird in the hope that candy will be launched in the general direction of their maw. And it only costs 40 bucks! Such a deal!

There have always been motion-activated candy dispensers. They’re called “candy dishes,” and you motion yourself over to the dish, put your hand into the dish, and take some candy out. Fucking magic, I tell you! And they’re cheap, too. In fact, I’m pretty sure your grandma or your mom (or maybe even yourself) has 10 of them collecting dust in some forgotten cabinet. Bet you could bum one off of them easy. Then again, you might not be nearly as fancy as I (sometimes) am, and are perfectly happy putting a bag of candy out on the counter for anyone to help themselves. It works; I’ve tried it many a time. If you can’t tolerate candy that doesn’t come out of a vaguely sinister $40 robot, that’s fine; more for me.

I recently saw a motion-activated soap pump, for people who really, really want their home bathroom to feel like an airport, and who like to do the hokey-pokey/Russian roulette with their soap products (because those sensors never work the first time, do they?), also for $40. I can see if you’re someone who is arthritic, or has a handicap that could use that kind of accommodation, but you might do just as well with bar soap, at a fraction of the cost. I’ve come to the not-at-all-scientific conclusion that 90% of the stuff being sold is stuff no one needs. Ever.

But the system is now designed so that we do not produce; our job is to consume, and if you have everything you need, and everything you want, then by dog, they will create new things and make you want them, because you cannot stop spending, even if you’re out of money and have to pepper spray your way to an X-box. It’s un-American.

I’ve fancied myself a pretty savvy consumer these days, but I nearly fell victim to a different catalogue (fancy again) that came in with the Brookstone one. It was a catalogue that has really nice stuff that actually comes in plus sizes as well (which is a rarity). I’ve never ordered from it, though, because they are spendy. But as I flipped through the pages as dinner cooked, I came across this beautiful coat, and had a semi-serious mental conversation with myself about the feasibility of spending $166 on a fancy coat at Christmas time, when I have plenty of other expenses. It is beautiful, to be sure. But the reality is, it’s expensive, the seasons I could actually wear it comfortably are extremely limited here in the desert, and I wouldn’t wear it that often, because I so rarely need a fancy coat as to make it virtually unnecessary.

And I realized I’d been gotten. I had not been in the market for a coat at all; it never occurred to me to want it until I saw it in the catalogue that they sent to my house for the express purpose of making me want stuff, because if they waited around until I decided, “Hey, I’d like to blow $166 on a totally impractical coat sold by a company I wouldn’t have remembered existed,” they would’ve waited forever.

As soon as I realized that, I marched both catalogues out to the recycle bin, and have not brought any others in, because I resent being manipulated in that way, and am chagrined that I was so manipulable. And I’m not playin’ anymore. The catalogues are going to be recycled immediately, and I’ll try to get myself off their mailing lists. I also dumped all the home design blogs off my Google Reader, because I’d begun to notice that all they do is entice me to be dissatisfied with my home and to buy new things and new products to improve it, even though I actually am pretty happy with it when I’m not constantly bombarded with NEW! PRETTY! SPARKLY! COOL! In fact, every time I clean my house, I find more crap to get rid of that has lost its usefulness, or was, in truth, never all that useful to begin with.

Scott commented the other day that the blinds needed cleaning, and I made a mental note that I should get one of those blind cleaners. And then I thought about it again, and thought, “I should see if they have one at Big Lots,” (a deep-discount store) so I could save some money. And then tonight I looked at the blinds and thought, “Jeez, I don’t need a special blind cleaner. A rag, some Pledge I already have under the sink, and 5 minutes will take care of it. And I can wash and reuse the rag.” I’m rather hoping that sort of thought process will move a little faster through practice, but I intend to train myself out of the mindset that the first, best answer to any problem involves buying something. It’ll be tough, because we are well trained into that mindset from birth. But I think it can be done.

I’ll never totally divorce myself from consumer culture; I’m too much of a magpie. But I do think I’m capable of becoming a much more critical magpie, and determining for myself what I need and want in my life, rather than being the puppet of the companies who would separate me from my money.

What about you? Anyone else recoiling from the constant thrum of “Buy! Buy! Buy!”? Scaling back Christmas? Cleaning house mercilessly, and getting rid of stuff?  Mending, repairing, recycling and repurposing instead of replacing?



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

16 thoughts on “‘Tis the season, v.2011

  1. Actually yes, I’ve been pondering exactly how much less stuff I could own and still live happily (the answer: 99.99% of my crap could safely vanish). I’m sure it’s due to how I’ve spent the last few months (65 litre maximum on possessions imposed) but I hope I can apply it when I return home and have a bit more space for belongings. The candy dispenser however…what are the dimensions? I could shove it in my pack. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I imagine backpacking through Europe teaches you right quick what is essential, and what isn’t. Is there anything you DIDN’T bring with you that you regret not stuffing into that pack now?

      Oh, and the dimensions of that candy dish are too big x too useless. I don’t think you have room. 🙂

      1. Actually quite the opposite, there are things I brought that I could have lived without, mainly redundant clothing. Perhaps I should have packed more BC Powder, as I ran out some time ago, but standard aspirin works OK.
        Unfortunately you are right about the candy dish, as my packs dimensions are just big enough x just the essentials. I’d almost bought an 85 litre version of the same pack and now I’m really glad I went smaller, it would have just encouraged me to stuff more and then I would have been dumping weight to get on the cheap airlines (that happened last time with my old pack).

      2. One amendment to that, in retrospect. More underwear, less outerwear. I don’t mind wearing pants, shirts, and jumpers for days on end (and I managed to bring plenty of socks), but I could have done well with a few more base layers.

      3. I feel that way every time I pack–too many clothes–even when I try to keep it to a minimum. But you can’t have too many undies. I can’t rewear undies unless I’m deathly ill and not moving from bed.

      4. Exactly. I’ve washed them in the sink, I’ve taken them in the shower with me, anything to make sure I had a fresh (and relatively dry) pair to wear the following day. Bit of advice, should you ever need it: underwear can double as a washcloth. Just start with your feet and legs and by the time you get to your face, so long as you don’t think about it too much, it’s fine. Perhaps that should be filed under too much information, but throwing it out there anyway. 🙂

  2. I love your writing style, too funny. I think you summed it up quite well with some good ol fashioned humor 🙂

  3. Yes, Pam and I are definitely scaling back. We had a mongo rummage sale this fall, and made some money and cleared some shelves. Anything that didn’t sell, we took to Goodwill. We sold our second car because Pam not longer works out of the house and we can do without it. We have asked our friends and family to stop the exchange of Christmas gifts (except for the kids), because we give and get stuff we really don’t need, with money better spent in other ways.
    I don’t repurpose nearly as much as I could or should, but as you say, it is a mindset one retrains themselves for, and I am getting there. It’s really a win win situation too, because every mailing list I call to cancel, everything I don’t buy or have bought and now repurpose, helps decrease my impact on our environment too. Now if I could only get over my obsession with tonewood for luthiery………..

    1. Good point about the environmental impact. All those catalogues I toss in the recycle bin…do they all actually get repurposed? They’d be better off not mailing them but to people who want them. It’ll be a whole job to get off those lists, but I’m going to try.

      You’ll never get over that obsession. And what you make out of it is both useful and beautiful, so I don’t know that you should try.

  4. Well, I was looking at vintage jewelry that I just HAD to have, literally the same time I read your post. Boy do I feel guilty now for all the stuff on my wish list on that site. You’re right, before I looked at it, I didn’t think I needed it. I have jewelry at home that I don’t wear. Sigh… we are such the society of consumers. I don’t want to be like that. Clicking the “X” on the window with the jewelry and trying not to think about it.

    1. I hear ya–jewelry is my weakness, too. Sparkly? Funky? Vaguely punk? Yes please! And clothes. But I, too, have plenty. I have this vague, probably totally unrealistic notion, that if people say to business, “I will decide what I need, not you, and you’re not getting my money otherwise,” we could bring business to heel, having them work for our money, instead of us working for their stuff.

  5. I am with you on this one 100%. We went camping Thanksgiving weekend. When I got home on Sunday afternoon, I had 72 emails in my inbox of which 50 were Black Friday or Cyber Monday come-ons! 50!!!!!!!! And they have not stopped since Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed. There are at least 10 companies emailing me regularly with their specially extended Cyber Monday deals. And, like you, I do occasionally find myself unconsciously and unwittingly drawn into the “oooo, pretty . . . I want it” trance. But I resist. I have purchased exactly one thing for Christmas so far (and, yes, I took advantage of the 50% off Cyber Monday special). It’s an 8 foot by 2 1/2 foot banner (designed by moi) to hang over my garage door that has a lovely graphic of angels trumpeting over planet earth with the message “Peace on Earth” in big golden letters. It’s my one and only TRUE desire for this and every Christmas. All the rest is just stuff.

    1. I’ve pared my Xmas list down, and a lot of it is gift certificates. I don’t want to pay shipping, either; one year we paid more in shipping than I put into the gifts themselves. I only needed to learn that lesson once.

  6. I’ve come to the same conclusions this past year. I’ve tried to only shop when I actually need something instead of just browsing like I used to do. I’ve always been the kind of person that waits for something to go on sale, too. And while most store brand products are not up-to-par with the name-brand counterpart, I found out this past year when Big Y moved into our neighborhood that theirs do. I go in with my trusty list so as not to splurge shop, and I have to say, I’ve definitely saved money on groceries this year. Every little bit helps. Living in one of the most expensive counties in the country but making substantially less than the median income of that county will do this to you.

    BTW, that coat IS gorgeous. Sigh.

    1. It IS and if I were actually in need of a coat, I might’ve considered it further. But I’ve got 2 winter coats, including the leather jacket I’ve been wearing for 10 years now and still love, and the reconfigurable rain-proof one I have for the various kinds of winter weather we have that I bought to wear to camp a few years back. It’s enough. That’s my watch-word these days: “Enough.” It’s a useful, life-affirming concept.

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