Spartans and Hoarders


People that know me (and have been to my apartment) are always encouraging me to record and watch a few episodes of “Hoarders“. This is not because I am messy and accumulate things, but because I probably represent as close to the complete opposite of a hoarding mentality as is possible while still having clothes on my back and a bed to sleep in. I come from a long line of obsessively clean people on my mother’s side, so my behavior is not without precedent. My mother is constantly cleaning, and can’t countenance the slightest blemish on any surface. She seems to be “spring cleaning” at intervals much smaller than the actual season, constantly cleaning out “the mess”. Her mother (my grandmother) used to constantly clean her house and although an avid smoker, would walk around her place ashing into her own hand rather than sully an ashtray. Over the years of traveling and moving I have done, I have found it much easier and less stressful to travel lightly. Add to that my increasing dismay at the excesses of consumer culture, and you have a recipe for minimalism in my life. I find a clean, uncluttered space is the most conducive to my work and life, and puts me at ease emotionally and intellectually. A few days ago, I watched a couple of episodes of “Hoarders” and was quite shocked, but morbidly curious at the same time. Dead animals, feces all around, rooms too stuffed with trash to move through — unbelievable. How do people live in that? Even the cleanest ones had piles and piles of cardboard, magazines, stuffed animals and such literally packed tightly from floor to ceiling. My rule for things in my life is pretty simple: If I haven’t used it in a year, out it goes (to friends if they want it, to the secondhand store if still usable, to recycling if possible).

Which brings me to something disturbing I witnessed when back in the midwest a couple of weeks ago. I was staying at my brother’s house (he seems to have handily escaped the non-clutter gene) watching my niece and nephew for the weekend while my brother and sister-in-law were out of town. At one point we decided to go out to the park in the neighborhood, and my nephew asked if he could bring his new skateboard. Trying to be the responsible substitute parent, I asked if he had protective gear to go with it. He replied that yes he did, and off he went to find it. After about 10 minutes he came back down and said he couldn’t find his helmet, and thought it might be in the garage, so we went to look for it. We went inside and it was like a mini hoarders episode, with boxes of stuff everywhere. I asked my nephew what all of this was, and he told me it was “old stuff they don’t use”. My brother’s family is typical of many somewhat affluent American households. I don’t believe my brother’s family consume typically much more than most, but that is the problem. The averages in this country are obscene. I looked around the garage at the boxes of consumer goods, hardly touched, but just sitting there in storage/trash, and asked myself: for what purpose? We live in a culture that is at its root disposable, and until we deal honestly with our consumptive habits, I don’t hold out great hope for saving the planet. Our entire culture is built on a foundation of waste and planned obsolescence. Where do all the old bats, balls, helmets, dollhouses, game consoles, furniture, clothes, etc –to say nothing of the packaging — go to? Why don’t we care?

The Story of Stuff


Regular readers of this blog know that I go on at length about the corrosive aspects of conspicuous consumption, and how our stuff takes a far too important place in our lives. While it is true that I sometimes talk about how this is destroying our planet, my main focus has been more about the prison we put ourselves in emotionally and spiritually by being so tied up and obsessed with our stuff. Of course, that is only part of the story, and a New York Times article this morning pointed me to an absolutely amazing video called “The Story of Stuff“, that details the ins and outs of the cycle of consumption, and makes some excellent points about the lack of sustainability in our current culture.

The maker of the video, Annie Leonard,  is a former Greenpeace activist, and there are a few rather indelicate ways she describes some parts of the system in the video. At times, she makes some rather blanket statements about using resources that leave out some nuance. But overall, I heartily agree with her main points that this system can not continue indefinitely as is, and that we fundamentally need to change our relationship to consumption so that the true costs are put in evidence. Continued life on our planet depends on it. The video is only 20 minutes long, and WELL worth watching. Check it out here.

Freedom’s just another word


An old Yiddish proverb goes:

If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything

I was thinking about this today after talking to a friend who was quite distraught over the state of the economy and his low amount of incoming work. He needs to maintain projects and billing at a pretty high rate just to keep his financial life in place and meet all of his obligations. I asked if he wanted to go out to dinner this week and he told me that really, he couldn’t, he was “broke”. When I told him I was surely the far more broke of us two, he assured me that he was the more destitute.  Being quite sure that he generates many times my income, this could only be true in the sense that he has far more to lose than I, and that he is freaking out about losing his multiple mortgages and style of living to which he has become accustomed. And he is not the only one. I have other friends who are likewise entrenched in a certain level of material comfort that they are hell bent and determined to maintain, seemingly for its own sake.

With each passing day it seems, I continue to be thankful that I have so few possessions compared to so many in this country. I mean, I don’t feel deprived of anything (except health care, but I should have that taken care of soon). I really don’t. I go out to eat and drink with friends quite often, I have a roof over my head and easy transportation. I have a gym membership and Internet access and a laptop. I read books and watch movies and meet people. I drink coffee, I take strolls. And of course, I travel. Out of the possessions I have, they could all be destroyed in a fire or taken in a theft and it really would be no big deal.

I keep returning to this theme since I have been back, because I am confronted with it everywhere. The more things people aquire, the more worried they are about protecting them. The more worried they are about losing them. The more stressed out they are about maintaining a certain level of income to be able to support all these things. At my current billing rate, I will make about a third of the money that I made when I was VP of Technology, but I can honestly say that I am orders of magnitude less stressed than I was when I had that position. I also have a great deal more freedom in my schedule. If I feel like working today, I will. If I feel like taking part or all of the day to go to a museum or read or stroll or meditate, I will. The things I have “given up” to be in this way are not in any way necessities of life. I do not “need” expensive clothes, a multitude of gadgets, or excessive displays of wealth. I live very well indeed without owning one or more houses or cars. I feel a great freedom to try new things, consider any life changing option whether it relates to the kind of work I do, the place I do it, who I do it with or how. People often ask me if things are less exciting now that I am no longer traveling. But to be honest, I still feel pretty much how I did while I was traveling. I don’t feel settled or tied to this particular thing or place, but neither do I feel a need to be constantly moving somewhere else.

There are a vast array of potential reasons for our conspicuous consumption, or the acquiring of vast amounts of things well outside basic need or comfort. We acquire them for reasons of status, to show others how important we are. We acquire things out of a false sense that they will make us safe and secure. We do so because in our consumer culture if we do not acquire, we are not participating in the organizing principle of our society. We acquire to fill the loneliness and to pass the time. But is more stuff really the answer?

I am not in principle opposed to having any of these things, but in anything that generates great feelings of attachment there is a danger. Buddhist teaching sure has that part right anyway. They teach that our unhappiness comes from our attachments to some things on the one hand, and our aversion to others on the other hand. Of course, grasping is very much at the core of what it means to be human, and no amount of conditioning or meditation will or should wipe away the sensual responses that are central to who we are. It is the greatest gift to be born into existence, all of it. But we strive so much to contain the uncontainable, instead of appreciating the breathtaking thing our very existence is and sharing it with others. We should be able to enjoy the experiences we have without needing them to continue. In short, we should be striving for being, not having.

Consumer orgy


I loved Sex and the City, the HBO series. I have seen every episode a number of times. And while the last few of them managed to piss me off with their annihilation of most of the characters (turning each into their polar opposite), I nevertheless was very much looking forward to seeing the movie.  When the show was at its best it had extremely sharp and funny dialog and explored sex and relationship themes with a candor and nuance unmatched anywhere else. I was looking forward to a recreation of that in the film. Sadly, there was very little to be had of it.

The movie almost completely eschews breaking any new ground, preferring to wallow in the mundane and the trivial. It is suffused with the most over the top consumerism as stand in for just about any real emotion or action. In the most telling and emblematic scene in the movie, Carrie gives her (financially) struggling assistant a Luis Vuitton bag, and as she opens the present and takes it in, a symphonic melody plays in the background. I know that music. We all do. That’s the music they put on when star crossed lovers finally declare their devotion to each other. It is the music they play when they want the audience to well up with sentiment for great sacrifice or puppies. But in this context, that music is obscene. A fucking bag?!! That is what we are supposed to get emotional over? That she just got an expensive piece of consumer crap? Give me a break. And unfortunately, this is the tone of most of the movie. It was as if a group of ad executives from a number of companies got together, circle jerk style, to figure out how they could make a commercial lasting two and one half hours, and actually get people to pay to see it.

There were very few moments in the film that recalled the flair that the original series used to have, and they almost excusively belonged to Samantha. And her story arc was by far the most interesting (at least at the end) as a proud 49 year old woman decides to go it alone. The rest of the movie was at best a cheap romance novel for over privileged housewives, and at worst a disturbing “eat me” from a long list of companies.

Lowest common denominator


I just came back from seeing the traveling art exhibit that everyone has been raving about. It is called Ashes and Snow, and it is currently on display in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. This movable art tent was in LA just before I left about 2 years ago where it was likewise greeted as something incredible.

I thought it was total crap.

More of a marketing idea than anything else, the show is a testament to hype over substance. The images are simplistic (not to be confused with its much richer cousin, simple) playing into a mass culture (and watered down) idea of the exotic. These images in no way force anyone to contemplate the messy reality of truly far away places, they simply allude to a sanitized, romanticized version of it. The images are perfect for our culture of mass consumption, for they contain no content that would argue against modern excess. Quite to the contrary, the final part of the exhibit is a large vending area so that people may continue to consume these images with their purchase of posters, postcards, cds, books, etc. In fact, the entire exhibit could be considered the showroom, with purchase and checkout at the end.

Ultimately this exhibit was about as aesthetically and critically fulfilling as a “Hang in there baby!” kitty poster. The difference being that the kitty poster is less pretentious.

Notes on Indiana: Thanksgiving prep


When I think about it, this isn’t really so much an Indiana thing as an American thing (and soon to be a world thing). We went to one of the warehouse club stores (Costco) yesterday to shop in preparation for today’s Thanksgiving meal. These places represent both the best and the worst of America in my opinion. On the one hand, they are models of supply chain efficiency. On the other, they lay bare the orgy of overconsumption upon which this nation is based.