Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stuff about Stuff

I like Stuff.

Of course I like Stuff. I'm an American born in the late 20th century, raised on Saturday mornings of ads with a few cartoons in between, a lifetime of being taught to desire and acquire.

So I'm the wrong person to write the Definitive Anti-Black Friday Diatribe Against All Things Materialistic And Commercial. I have too much Stuff to do that and just enough self-awareness to recognize the contradiction.

But I am old enough to remember when Black Friday wasn't a thing, except in Philly. It was just a Steely Dan song.

It was a big shopping day, sure. We used to get free movie tickets at school. The downtown theater would function as baby sitter for the Chamber of Commerce by showing how some kid-friendly movie that was maybe 20 years old and make their money on popcorn. That gave our moms - always the moms - about 90 minutes to buy the presents at the downtown department store - long since malled out of existence - stash them in the trunk and pick up the oblivious kids, who a month later would give Santa the credit.

So kinda a big deal, but stores opened at or near the usual time and it wasn't treated as a national holiday where it was your patriotic duty to go shopping.

But that was when grocery stores closed at night and when you had to check your gas tank on Saturday (25.9 cents a gallon!) because no place sold gas on Sunday.

Now, of course, these things are open all the time, which means retail service people work all the time. My lifecycle is different than Normal people as it revolves around election day rather than around the November-January holidays or the academic calendar or, from our agrarian roots, the planting/harvest cycle.

I had a second job last year and worked my one and only retail Black Friday. It was pretty easy compared to my other benchmark of Busy Day At Work: presidential election day. Black Friday I clocked in at 5 AM and was done for the day by 2 PM. This presidential election I clocked in at 6:45 and left work at 12:30 Wednesday morning.

A really long day. But a really well compensated day, with a union wage and a lot of overtime. Black Friday I was at $8.25 an hour, and everyone was very carefully kept away from overtime. And a lot of people try to make a living like that.

So I sympathize a lot with the idea of Balck Friday as a Buy Nothing day, and with teh workers who are finally, finally standing up to the biggest retail bully of all, Wal-AMrt, the driving force behind the ever-earlier hours and ever-intensifying pressure on workers and yes, even shoppers. Not content with having driven that old downtown department store out of business, it seems they're trying to corner the big box market too. Not that their competitors are significantly better. They're just not AS big.

Sometimes I Imagine myself as some sort of ultra-minimalist who owns only 15 things, like a trappist monk in his little cell. Or like this guy.

Come to think about it, I kind of did do that for a few years.

Then reality hit me, in the form of a family. The cycle repeats: more ads thinly strung together by cartoons, more wants, more needs, only now I'm the grownup who gets to figure it out. And one of the ways I figure it out is: spend the money on good Stuff for the kids. Because home is more than A Place For Your Stuff.

I have too much Stuff of my own to cop an smug attitude of Moral Superiority. I have that all-American urge to acquire, the need for occasional retail therapy. I understand the joy of the shopping hunt. All I can do is manage the condition.

My personal Black Friday is moving week. The prices are way better than Wal-Mart and it keeps it out of the landfill. Laugh at us if you want for picking up your shit; we're laughing at you for throwing it away.

The other good one is Surplus Saturday at U of I Surplus. It really does feel like Black Friday. You have a line outside before it opens, though 9 AM is a lot more sane hour than 8 PM the night before. You get a rush to the carts and then to The Good Stuff, whatever that is. My best recent find was an Asus EeePC netbook for $45, that I'm having a great time tweaking. You remember netbooks, the hot gift item of 2007.

That's one of the tricks of living a materialistic lifestyle on a livin' in a van down by the river budget: stay one technology behind the curve. A netbook instead of a tablet. Or $2 used DVDs instead of Blu-Rays. Fairly soon Goodwill will start paying people to take away VHS tapes.

It also helps if you can revel in your own eccentricities, as what Paul Fussell, in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, called a "Category X" person, oblivious to fashion and taste.I guess I'm sort of an alt-materialist.

As I look around my home office slash geek cave, filled way too full with too much Stuff, the only things I can see that were purchased new are the phone, the printer (some things just break) and my main laptop. One of five computers in the room, each with an actual unique purpose. Much as a serious guitarist chooses his instrument with care to fit the song. Too many computers? Maybe, but none of them broke the budget.

Desk and TV: UI Surplus. Bookshelves: Salvation Army and curb shopping. Futon: resale. Drinking glass: a repurposed beaker from UI Surplus. (I washed it very, very well.) Metal shelf functioning as cat climber and plant stand: curb shopping. Hell, even the cats I got used. Technically, I'm only keeping them till we can find them a good home. That was eight years ago.

And yes, the raspberry beret was, true to the song, found in a second hand store.

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