Friday, January 28, 2011

Inherited stuff

No buy February

My mother died when I was 22. I bring this up not to gain sympathy, but rather to point out a peculiar facet of my adulthood, namely, that I never had to furnish a household. I simply kept using everything I'd grown up with, from the living room furniture right down to the mismatched forks.

Not only that, but because of the trauma of losing my mother so young, her things took on huge emotional significance, to the point that losing or breaking something of hers sparks a feeling close to grief. I find it difficult to replace her things when they wear out, or to admit that either her things aren't good enough or that I need something she didn't have. So I use pot lids that have no handles, and pots with giant dings and dents. I burn soup because I can't bring myself to retire the 1947 Revere Ware and replace it with some nice double-walled Calphalon.

More than 30 years later, I'm still using her things.

I complain that Americans have no "culture" but this investment of emotional gravity into things is actually part of our American culture. We come, all of us, from people who left their belongings behind. Whether through voluntary or forced migration, America is a land of people who abandoned stuff, so the new stuff that we acquired when we got here was important in a way that it won't be for a people in the old country, surrounded by stuff accumulated over centuries.

Marketers take advantage of this need for things to be important by attaching emotional resonance to the stuff we buy and the places we buy it. Unfortunately, the only emotion that marketers REALLY want is the toddler version of desire-- I want THAT, NOW (or I will hold my breath til my face turns blue).

Things are important, no doubt about it. But let's remember that importance attaches to specific things-- my mother's salad bowl, my grandfather's sword, my great-great-grandmother's wedding dress, my wedding ring-- and not just to things. Buy too many things and you'll start to attach importance to them, to gratify this emotional need.

Just for this month, at least, enjoy the things you have.

Trail mix (something you don't need to buy)
Combine, in approximately equal amounts:
Raisins (dredge them in a little cinnamon sugar first, for a sweeter mix)
Dried cranberries or other dried fruit*
Lightly salted peanuts
Unsalted crushed almonds or walnuts
*if using a larger fruit like apples or apricots, chop it fine first, to pieces slightly smaller than a raisin

Season to taste with:
Sea salt
Finely chopped candied ginger

Just keep a big jar of this around.

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