The city was behaving very strangely while I was out walking Saturday morning. Cars went by too slowly, as if they were stalking me, or someone. Every pedestrian but me seemed to be have a backpack or a large shopping bag, and I knew most of them didn’t live in my neighborhood.
A young woman walked by pushing an empty stroller and the paranoia really started to creep into my muscles. I suddenly became convinced that I was being filmed. A passing Cavalier came to a stop in the middle of the street and sat there for a moment. Whatever was going to happen was about to happen now. Two Middle Eastern men got out, leaving the doors open and the engine running. They trotted into a back alley, and emerged carrying a coffee table.
I had forgotten that it’s Winnipeg’s giveaway weekend, where citizens are encouraged to leave their unwanted home furnishings on the boulevard in front of their houses, for others to pick up if they like. Thrift-minded Winnipeggers hit the streets early Saturday, usually in pairs, to skulk through other people’s neighborhoods at creepy-slow speeds, hoping to find anything that may possibly be useful: worn-out golf bags, folding chairs, tarpaulins, drawerless dressers, dresserless drawers, sander belts, axe handles, maybe even a pair of Shake-Weights or a Jolly Jumper.
I’d intended to put out my items before the foragers left home: a tiny computer desk, a box of low-quality paintball gear, and a particle-board bookshelf. I forgot but knew it would be no problem finding a taker later on. The most important thing not to forget on giveaway weekend is to keep everything you do wish to keep as far as possible from the front boulevard. It’s even dangerous to leave something anywhere in the front yard. Every year careless people lose bikes, lawnmowers and garden gnomes, because anybody could haul it off and, if stopped in the act, make a case that they thought it was free.
Quirks aside, I love that we have giveaway weekends. There’s something beautiful about how it allows an object to regain its lost worthiness, by gaining a new owner. When I did put my items out later in the morning, they were gone before I could return to my desk with my coffee — I had hoped to see their new owners through the window.
The value of everyday household stuff has dwindled noticeably in my lifetime. I remember accompanying my dad, one Summer weekday when I was ten, to a little shop to get the family VCR repaired. Repaired! Can you imagine that? There were people running a profitable business fixing small appliances — toasters, coffee makers and Video Cassette Recorders — because even a few decades ago there was an expectation of lasting value in these things. Today we typically bury malfunctioning electronic devices in the ground and buy new ones. It’s possible that there will be a time when children are surprised to hear their parents used to have their cars fixed too.
Certain aspects of the human world are marching pretty steadily in a particular direction, the growing disposableness of our goods being only one of them. But they aren’t all moving in a bad direction. Over my lifetime I’ve seen a steady increase, for example, in the recognition of gays as regular people, the ease of self-publishing your own creative work, and freedom of expression generally. I like the way things are moving on those fronts. So don’t think I’m saying that the world is going uniformly to Hell. But the quality of the objects with which we populate our homes is certainly not a category in which we’re moving towards humanity’s potential.
In New Zealand I met a young, pseudo-Buddhist Englishman — he high-fived me when he learned I had been meditating on the hostel’s back porch — who carefully washed and reused plastic bags other travelers had left. He explained that they are as permanent as everything else, and so he wanted to get some value out of the refuse of others if he could. “The only thing that makes them disposable is that we’re told to dispose of them,” he said. “If the ancient Egyptians made these, we’d still be finding them.”
I respect the way he valued value. He recommended getting rid of everything I own at least once, then go backpacking with a change of clothes and a book to see how infrequently I had to actually buy something in order to get by. It sounded more extreme to me at the time than it does now.
A stand-up lamp I bought a year ago is now showing signs of senility. The brightest setting is no longer where the knob is all the way to the right, it’s at a random position somewhere along its rotation each time I turn it on. The off position, similarly, is not quite at the other end any more, it’s migrated a few millimeters to the right. When I bought it I remember consciously avoiding the low-end ones and getting the heavier, more expensive one because I wanted a trustworthy light source.
It’s become pretty normal for “goods” to be pretty bad. So after seeing the delight with which a different person carries away the same bookshelf I can’t bloody stand to look at any more, I want to celebrate and maximize the value of the things I let into my life. There’s no strict timeframe for this, so I’m not making a formal experiment out of it, but I am going to set a definite compass heading here. From here on in I want to move against the cultural current by gradually transitioning my estate to include only lasting, fixable possessions, even if the world around me continues to lower its standards.
Broken down, that means:
Only buy new things that I expect to last a long time. It’s true that there are some types of products that are simply not available in the long-lasting variety. If I want to participate in the smart-phone world, for example, (and at this point I do) I will not expect to find one that will last ten years. But I will go with the makes that seem to be the most durable. My Samsung Android has survived quite a bit, including being submerged in running ditchwater for a good half-minute.
Acquire fewer things. Even if I’m not actively minimizing possessions, acquiring fewer things is a necessary side-effect because the initial purchase price of a high-quality item is going to be higher, even though cheaper items tend to cost more in the long run because they need replacing sooner. As I get more and more frugal, the purchase of a new item (or even a quality used one) is becoming rarer. This is good all around I think. As Mr. Money Mustache has said, “Buying yourself a new manufactured product should hurt a little bit.”
Find owners for things I don’t want. When something has become valueless for me, there is almost certainly someone out there in this city who would value it. Sometimes it’s a little more work to find an owner than to drag it to the bin, but often it’s not. Putting it on Kijiji or Craigslist often means you only have to drag it as far as your front door.
Fix broken things, if possible. For every item that has ever been successfully fixed by a DIY enthusiast, there is a Youtube video showing you how you can do it too. Fixing something is an incredible feeling.
Own nothing that makes me feel bad. This includes not only the low-quality but also the unnecessary. If I don’t have actual intentions for it, it ought to be somebody else’s. I’d rather own fifty good things than a thousand crummy things.
Some part of me yearns for a Walden-like life of sturdy hand tools and homemade everything, in a self-built shack outside the edge of town. I would like to trust and respect every item I use in my daily life, which means the fewer items there are, and the simpler they are, the better. The motive here isn’t exactly minimizing the volume of possessions, but maximizing their quality.
I know I’m too dependent on 21st century miracles like the internet to go quite as far as, say, Thoreau. Still, I would like to begin pruning the dead overgrowth away from where I am, and see what kind of material life I end up with before it truly pains me to cut one more thing loose.