The Tyranny of Stuff

posted April 12, 2019

I recently learned that the word “respect” means, literally, “to see (or look) again.”

I am home after a weekend away. As is the case these days, a weekend of shows completely wipes me out, not to mention that all the things I usually do on weekends to catch up, to be a decent human (church, garbage, bill-paying, going for walks) doesn’t happen. I’m a wreck on Monday. Even by Wednesday, I was still in my pjs at 9:30am, trying to make sense of a website that refused to believe I remembered my password. (The nerve). I have a To Do list in twelve categories, color coded, tyrannical. I have untamed creative projects vying for attention now that the current draft of my novel is off at summer camp. Katryna and I just launched our first podcast. I have a new book brewing. And then there are the many mini ongoing projects, like learning “Bohemian Rhapsody” for my Focus Chorus, or “Alexander Hamilton” with my Local Chorus. There are cherry trees to plant outside of Little Blue, but first I have to choose among seven varieties, and that means researching. There are winter woolens to take to the dry cleaners lest the moth larvae destroy all of them. There’s my almost 52-year-old body to keep fit (cholesterol was down by literally half the number it was at my last writing. Boo hoo, no more duck eggs.) There is my huge stack of books to read. Though I have written three songs this month, there are more to write. We’re heading back into the studio in late July for a new recording.

A recording of what? Who buys albums anymore? No one. So one of my creative projects has been to think of ways a consumer of Nields music might still be persuaded to fork over $20 at the merch table after a show. We have a catalogue of over twenty CDs/LPs/DVDs, and recently I’ve been selling little download cards for the albums that are out of print on disc. What if we made songbooks to go with these cards? What if you could order a beautiful little chapbook with the lyrics and chords of all the songs on the given album, plus some author notes and recollections on the making of that project?

I notice, in my time-starved present reality, that things are tyrants, too. My piano is on its last legs, or strings to be more accurate. The piano tuner warns me every six months that it’s time to put her out to pasture and pay up for a new one. We just gave up on the dishwasher that we’ve had since 2011 because no matter how often I clean its filter and interior (yes, we’ve run it with vinegar, yes, we’ve figured out it only works with Cascade), our dishes continued to emerge dirtier after we ran them through. So off it goes to the landfill. My daughter offered to wash all our dishes by hand if we’d keep it, but that only lasted for 5 dishes.

I hate throwing appliances away. Why can’t they be fixed? I have this excellent Dishwasher Fixit Guy Art Cooper who “fixed” our 2011 (crappy Bosch) dishwasher for 8 years before he finally said, “Don’t call me again. Toss the thing.”

See broken coffeemaker WAAAAY in the back. It’s red. The new one is silver.

During the March Equinox Retreat in Little Blue, we noticed the coffee maker didn’t work. I just brought over my own and left it there, and spent the past few weeks doing pour-overs with a plastic filter, which I actually prefer. But still, I called the company–Cuisinart–– and asked them to send me a replacement, as the machine was only a year old. They did so, telling me I had to return the broken one with the cord cut and a ten dollar check for shipping. I would gladly pay $90 to not have to spend my time cutting a machine’s cord and lugging it to UPS. But then I would have three coffeemakers, and have to take the broken one to the dump. I hate throwing things into the landfill. My had to convince me that it was OK to toss the crappy dishwasher

And then my dependable ancient Cuisinart food processor started sputtering, its slicer blade–the one that looks like a compact disc with a big knifey gash in it–bucking terrifyingly when it ran. I use this blade for slicing bok choy and celery, my favorite steamed veggie combo. It does heavy duty, and at this point, the knife is kind of weird looking and bent, and the place where it attaches to the stem part is loose, so that halfway through a bulb of bok choy I hear a terrible noise and the disc flies off the stem. I ordered the part off of Evil Amazon, but it arrived a millimeter too small. My model Cuisinart is probably from the last century.

Note degraded blade.
Note compromised hole-in-middle where it should attach to stem.

So when I was on the phone replacing my (Cuisinart) coffeemaker, I decided to replace this slicer too. But what they sent me was the regular double blade piece you think of when you think Cuisinart–not a slicer blade. I called today and explained the problem. After way too long, like probably 15 boring minutes of being on hold, during which I could have and should have been writing a song or creating a songbook for one of our old albums, or talking to my children, or choosing cherry trees, or calling a senator or congresswoman, the nice woman on the phone figured out exactly which blade I needed and then told me the total would be $40 to have it sent, and it wouldn’t arrive for two weeks. “Two weeks? Forty dollars?” I moaned. “How much for a whole new machine with all the blades included?”

“That would be….” Minutes passed as she looked up my model, or what it’s morphed into in 2019. Grass grew. “One ninety-nine.” But as grass grew, I had been surfing for bargains on Amazon, and I saw a brand new version of my old Cuisinart on sale for $172.99. I had a burning urge to pull the plug on this woman, and I told her about Amazon’s price.

“We don’t compete,” she said. “Amazon is Amazon. Do you still want the blade?”

“No!” I said. I would ask for this fancy new machine for my birthday! Which is soon! I deserve a new machine, after all my trouble and stuff. Stuff. Too much stuff. Stuff is strangling me. There are Amazon boxes all over my house. I get dog food, ear plugs, pens, copies of the books I’ve written, USB thumb drives onto which I will put files of our old albums; I get violin books for the kids; I get coffee filters and hair thingys that have no name but which were cleverly advertised to me on Facebook. I looked again at the enticing photo of a new Cuisinart complete with slicer blade for a mere $172.99. It would arrive tomorrow, if I chose Prime. Of course I would choose Prime.

“Actually, yes,” I said to the woman. “I’ll get that blade.” I closed the window of my screen on Amazon and stood up, reading her my credit card number.

How can we respect anything if all we ever do is click a button and get what our hearts desire? How do I choose what to listen to when all music everywhere is free with my subscription to Spotify? I find that I choose silence, preferring nothing to having to decide, to choose among the millions of choices. New music comes to me the way it always used to: a person I love plays me something, and I turn an ear, open my heart.

I had planned, once I turned in my novel, to dig into decluttering, blog about it, save the world and myself. But I am too tired. The clutter makes me tired, just as one is tired when one doesn’t exercise, and then one is too tired to exercise. I am a perpetrator of the destruction of the planet and a prisoner of my belongings, and like any prisoner, I have become discouraged. I lose respect for the things, because I do not have time to use them. Is there hope for me? I don’t know. But I do know spring is really coming. I saw it in Virginia.

The Comments

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  1. Great blog post. It conveys so eloquently the challenge and frustration so many feel as we try to live intentional & responsible, but too – busy lives.

  2. I am also dealing with the tyranny of too much stuff, and I love how you describe the discouragement as a real thing – sometimes feeling, to me, as tangible as the stuff itself! But/and I also have in mind new stuff I want to buy, like a computer that doesn’t spend more time freezing than working, and art, and music. I would totally buy songbooks along with your albums. Please do this!

    I suppose I had been under the impression that musicians got paid royalties from websites like YouTube, hence all the ads I have to see, but now I’m reading that the actual payments may be miniscule compared to what YouTube claims. 🙁

    Finally, thank you for coming to Virginia!!!!

  3. Wow. You so perfectly and clearly (and insightfully and passionately) describe just what it’s like to confront the twin tyrannies of stuff and of time in an ultra “convenient” (a marketing tool which really means “get busier and busier”) 21st century world. Thank you. I admit to being somewhat of a coward when it comes to facing those challenges. If it gets too much, I grab a book (usually an old friend), tuck myself in bed, and read until I fall asleep. The subsequent dreams are often telling, but I’ve got to discover things about myself somehow. Take care of yourself, Nerissa.

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