20 January 2010

What is the oldest thing you own? For me, I’m pretty sure it’s the tattered volume of Virgil that my grandfather had somewhere in his storehouse of a basement and gave to me when I was studying Latin. It’s imprinted with a publishing date of 1799. A two-hundred and eleven-year old object. Created, albeit not here, 23 years after the US made the jump from the birth canal to the outside world of viability as an autonomous being. I have a few Victorian books and articles of clothing kicking around, and my piano (which was free on craigslist) celebrates its 109th birthday this year (and has the arthritic action to prove it).

Why do I ask?

As I look around my domain, I realize that most of my possessions, these objects for which I’ve volunteered to take responsibility for my earthly lifetime (or “dispose” of appropriately), are almost all younger than myself. And, in relative terms, I’m a spring chicken. As I gaze around, I see my plastic calculator that helps me to tell you how old my piano is (and works slowly because it’s solar-powered and I leave it in the dark too much, making me sometimes wonder if I should replace it); my ceramic coffee mug from Target at Halloween time several years ago — with bats, a lovely, presumably haunted, federal style mansion and a lurid green moon; my plastic pens and type-measurement rulers, and certainly all this well-adored plastic, glass, metal and strange-elements-containing digital equipment from our friends at Apple. All of this stuff, despite how proud I am that my Cinema Display is 9 years old and still calibrated and going strong, is really really new.

Historical figments

Now I’m thinking about my imaginary friends from the past, who are touchstones in these matters. People I might have been if I weren’t here and now. The Victorian char woman (cleaning up after after artists and disapprove, in shocked wonderment, at the naked ladies), the rural Medieval agricultural lords (longing to wear the impractical stuffed-toe pointy shoes of the fancy city folk), the 19th century Ukrainian peasants (living more or less the same for centuries, scraping by, marginalized by one ruling party after another, at least looking forward to market day), the scrappy and zealous American pioneers, discovering crazy exotic places like Ohio and such.

What did they own, especially, what did they own that was new? Not a hell of a lot, for the most part. Until the full impact of the Industrial Revolution really trickled down to everyone (well, “everyone” as in everyone in the “first world”, for lack of a better way to delineate the haves from the have nots — but that’s a rant for another day), people didn’t have a lot of stuff around. It was too expensive, too resource and time-intensive to make. You generally went through the trouble of making, buying or otherwise obtaining an object only if you really needed it: tools, some cookware, a set or two of clothes, some furniture (and all of this could be mended, to some degree, as needed).

And they certainly didn’t obtain things, if they could help it, that weren’t well made and weren’t going to last — with any luck, last through their lives and perhaps on through the lives of their children. It would be considered lunacy to buy anything built with “planned obsolescence”. And, no doubt, my historical imaginary friends would be quite horrified by the realization that most of these items we have around, the ones with built-in obsolescence — like my purple PaperMate flair marker right here — still have to exist, somewhere in our ecosystem, for hundreds or thousands of years, after they stop working. They can’t be mended, they can’t be used for something else, they can’t be passed along to the next generation. They just have to go sit in a pile of other, similar junk somewhere and, likely, exude not-so-peasant chemicals as they ever-so-slowly succumb to rot. Oh, I suddenly like my purple marker somewhat less than I did!

Of my imaginary friends who could write, they were likely, depending on the year, to use a turkey feather pen (a byproduct of agriculture — not that I advocate turkey eating, but again, that’s a rant for another day) and India or iron gall ink. They were likely to put their ink in a glass, metal, or ceramic vessel that stood a reasonable chance of lasting their lifetime, if they were careful. (I have similar aspirations for my $2.99 Target Halloween mug.)

I used to be a scullery maid in 1830, so I know these things

There weren’t even wastebaskets, generally, until the 20th century. When I worked, in costume, at an early 19th century historical house in Canada, there were no trash bins. No scraps went to waste in the kitchen or when clothes or other textiles were put together — they all had their secondary purposes. Even though I was a maid to a rich family, we still saved everything (and locked up the tea). There was no away to throw things. Just the pre-20th century version of reduce, reuse, recycle: don’t have a lot to start with, keep using and fixing it, and use it for something else when it’s no longer useful for its primary purpose.

Even our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, if they grew up during the Depression, thought of these behaviors as pretty much the norm.

When I’m thinking clearly, and look around at the masses and masses of stuff I own, it terrifies me. So much plastic, so much planned obsolescence, so many “disposable” (i.e., I get rid of it but it still exists) items. For the most part, these items are not well-made, but ironically, though I will outlive their useful lives, their physicality will outlive me. It’s not nice to think about.

My grandfather saved things because they might come in handy. They might be able to be reused. He had a large collection of parts of things. But he did use them. He did make new things out of old. He did reduce, reuse and recycle. I just have a preposterously large collection of things, and they’re not all very useful, or worth their carbon footprint, utility-wise.

Working on it

I’ve been trying though, the past few years, to end the madness. I’ve limited myself to a finite number of disposable pens (the number that fit in the re-used jars on my drafting table). I don’t buy knick-knacks or random this and that’s any more. I’m conscious of the packaging my food comes in and try to make good choices. I don’t use disposable plastic bags, I don’t buy bottled water. These are microscopic actions. They don’t turn me into anything like a Victorian char woman, and certainly not a Medieval dude. My hypocrisy stares me in the face at every turn, especially in my studio. But, being conscious when making buying decisions and thinking about the physical things one owns is important. It’s changed my life. It will change it more. I hope I can progressively own less (but only if the things I’m already in charge of can be upcycled or reused). I hope I can invest in heirloom objects that will last as I go forward — even if it’s a bit of a sacrifice to spend more.

I know this article is all over the place, and doesn’t have a coherent sort of linear narrative. It’s just my brain going crazy about all the crap that we think it’s normal and ok to own, when our ancestors would be gawking at us in confusion or horror (or envy, until they heard about the consequences). That said, along with my non-linear-narrative-type apologies, I just want to keep a dialog going to make us (me) remember to keep questioning the obtaining of stuff. There are better answers to these needs. There’s systems-thinking and better materials. There’s simplicity and learning to be happy without constantly consuming. We do what we can. Maybe every day, we think about it a little harder, and do a little more.

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