4.21.2012

junk stop

garbage dump in building crack, SE Woodward St., PDX

Years ago I lived with a great-aunt for a while. She kept a clean, tidy home, though like most Americans, her three-bedroom condo closets were filled to bursting with stuff. Everybody has her rituals and if they work, do please continue. But when they don't, when they create frustration and stress, it's time to consider forming new habits. Both my great-aunt and my sister at different times over the years have complained to me about the chore of going through their respective stacks of mail. They get mail and pick out the important pieces, bills and correspondence. The rest piles up. Eventually they feel guilty, and then they take a half hour or hour to go through the tall junk-mail stack each month or two, sighing and grumbling. But there's another way.

We all know the post office still exists only because of junk mail since no one's writing letters anymore, and while I feel regret about that because I don't want the public mail service to disappear, junk mail is a sad waste of trees and time. For me, the mail chore becomes far easier when I do two things: 1) reduce the input, and 2) file and recycle daily. It only takes a couple minutes a day to review mail, tear off one's address into little pieces (which tearing offers the side benefit of venting frustration), dump what's unwanted into the recycling bin, and file away anything needing to be saved or acted on (assuming one's organization system is already in place).

But what about the free coupons, one might ask? My mother, when I was growing up, stored batches of coupons in envelopes, along with budgeted cash, and shopped at three or four different grocery stores for the best buys on her cheddar cheese, ground beef, and canned spinach, making sure to use up her coupons before they expired. Many frugal people still do the same.

Yet I avoid coupons for the same reason I avoid as much marketing exposure in my day as I can. That's why my phone number's on the National Do Not Call Registry. That's why I use the free Adblock Plus extensions for Firefox and Chrome, which remove most advertising from my line of Internet sight. Cutting coupons and spotting loss leaders are not how I want to spend my life—plus, most of the products in such ads are for highly processed foods. On top of that, driving from store-to-store uses a lot of gas, which now costs over $4 a gallon. The point is these are choices we make.

This week three catalogs arrived in the mail, which somehow struck me as odd, so that must mean my past efforts at reducing unwanted mail have been working. So I signed into Catalog Choice, a free service that does the work to remove one's name from catalog and junk-mail lists, and added those company names to my list. Simple.

As Anna Fahey noted, though I've been crowing often about secondhand finds to promote their value in an attention-deficient culture obsessed with new, the blog is fundamentally about living more simply. For the record, the two best books I've read on the topic of simple living are Janet Luhr's Simple Living Guide and Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money Or Your Life. The Center for a New American Dream also offers free information on simple-living topics on their Web site. Simple living is a way of taking back control of one's life and making more conscious choices about what we value and what we give up for what we value. If a person wants to spend her disposable income on sports cars or traveling or a five-bedroom house or seven children, she can—if she accepts the price, the trade for some other life experience. We are not just consumers. We are citizens. We are workers. We are neighbors, friends, family members, lovers. Our lives do not need to be defined like Pac-Man by consumption.

Last night I watched Lars von Trier's Melancholia, a haunting metaphor of depression, in part, with the ultimate depressor (or savior, depending) a giant flyby planet about to crash into the Earth, one consuming the other. While waiting, Kirsten Dunst's depressive character, Justine, someone for whom having "everything" (brilliant career, beautiful husband, bountiful money) is still not enough, claims that life on Earth is evil and no one should grieve its end.

Without getting too philosophical, I suppose I disagree. To me life is ugly and beautiful both, with part of the beauty arising from its pain and injustice—but it all just is. There is no making sense. There is only how living things react or respond to change, to the life cycle, to horrors from within and without, to the expected and unexpected. And in between are the small pleasures, the moments of comfort and fragments of transcendence to hold to as long as they last, like ice floes in the melting Arctic. And the "magic cave" that makes it all bearable are one's companions, loving and hating them at the same time because they are different, because they have their own will, because they do not bend to ours. We need them and hate them for it. 

And so I hate the image above that I captured yesterday evening when walking back from the library, the scene of a garbage dump in the high, narrow, graffiti-ed space between two commercial buildings in Portland's Brooklyn. Why would someone choose to mark territory in a building crack full of tires? What does that say about poverty and lack of opportunity, about our species and how we care for each other and our spaces, or about me since I find the colors and juxtapositions somehow lovely—bright language, that marker of humanity, floating above the trash?

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