My daughter’s house used to be trashed. I think she’d be the first to admit it. I mostly refrained from saying anything. It had a sort of “punk” look. You know, something like what my generation was hoping to convey with threadbare shirts, jeans that dragged in the dust, and—if we were old enough to have an apartment—elephant-print pillows on the floor, sheets on the windows, and mattresses in the living room for friends to crash on. Taking pride in your home showed you valued property too much. It was none of my business to weigh in on her décor, or the lack of it. I did have to remember, when visiting, to bring my own food and water. This was because her saucepan, the bottom burned hopelessly black and the sides a pockmarked nonstick coating, seemed chemically threatening. Tea tasted like dentist drillings. Any vegetables were all in the freezer, cut up too perfectly, somehow freezer-burned though sealed in plastic. The stainless steel sink was dented, the laminate countertops chipped and dirty.
But one day, to my surprise and wonder, she mentioned that she planned to start fixing up her house—inside and out, starting with the kitchen. Since I had experience with house and yard fix-ups, she said, she might want to ask my advice now and then. Anytime! I replied. I was flattered, and excited about this new connection we’d have.
“So this is what I plan to do with the kitchen,” she said, showing me a picture on her phone. The countertops were a thick, light-colored butcher block, and the sink was a deep, white cube. Three sides were set into the counter, but the front face weirdly wasn’t, so that when you did dishes, your belly would be up against a cold enamel rectangle.
“Beautiful butcher block. But I’ve never seen a sink like that. It’s new. Looks like it might be a fad.” I was vaguely aware of sink styles, from the present on back. The vessel sink that sat above the countertop. The bathroom sinks that protruded in a curve from an otherwise normal, square cabinet. Single-basin sinks and two-chambered ones. The sink I did the family dishes in with my mom was white enamel, with stains. Many times during those years, she expressed her robust wish for a stainless sink. (My dad finally got her one a couple years before they retired and sold the house.)
“No, Mom. It’s not a fad.” She scrolled on.
“Don’t you like this shallower one, Sweetie? Less leaning over.”
“No. I’m getting the big one. It’s not that much more expensive.”
“Okay. But the butcher block must be pricey. You could do a mosaic for free! I’ve got all the tile, adhesive and grout you’ll need.”
“Thanks, Mom. But it’s cheap. And I really like the wood.”
She could afford it. She makes a decent salary. More importantly, hers is a mostly constructive organization. Sure, the staff uses electricity, up-to-date computers, heating and cooling energy, paper, gas for travel, etc.—nothing more than any modern company needs to get anything done. It doesn’t try to make people want what they don’t need or use buried messages to make them feel inadequate. It doesn’t amass profits by keeping wages down, ignoring safety concerns, or worse. It doesn’t excavate huge pits in the ground and leave poisons behind. What her nonprofit does is represent wild creatures—plants, too—and their habitats through legal action. So her income is well-earned in every sense. To myself: Just let her do it!
Her regular handyperson recommended a cabinetmaker, just to do the sink area, matching the existing cabinets. The giant sink arrived, and then the two butcher block sections. They were nice, though they made me think of some kind of miniature bowling alley. I don’t remember what kind of finish date the contractor gave her, but I think it was a week or so past it when she called me, upset. For weeks, she hadn’t had a counter or kitchen sink, and her stove had been in the middle of the kitchen.
“Oh, it’s a classic story, I think—home makeovers that go on and on, where the homeowners have to—”
“Sorry. I’m just saying, it’s not you.”
One of these days, I thought, she’ll stop calling me when she’s in need of comfort. But she called again the next day. Not for reassurance, but for ideas on the backsplash. The backsplash needs ideas? In my kitchen, the countertop tile just ran up the wall behind it. I never gave it any thought.
“Can’t you just paint it?” I asked her. “Or you could do a mosaic there.”
“Well, I have some ideas,” she said. “I’m gonna experiment with a patterned paint roller.”
“Okay. I’ve never had any luck with those, but maybe you will. You can do that while you’re waiting for everything else.”
And that’s what she did. On my next visit, she showed me her creation—the section of wall above the sink that continued around the corner, above where her butcherblock surface would go. It was the most beautiful wall I’d ever seen, crossed by a raised damask pattern, white on white.
“I used drywall mud. The pattern is uneven, but I kinda like that.”
“I love it! It’s wabi sabi.” I went in a little closer. “It has a rainbow sheen to it, like the inside of an abalone shell.”
I’d never heard of it. My daughter was a child of the Internet, and I could excuse my ignorance that way. But the truth was, she’d gone beyond me is so many ways. In imagination, creativity, intelligence, writing talent, spatial perception abilities, sense of humor, and good looks. As a kid she surpassed me; I saw all these gifts way before she did. In fact, at around age ten, she began to think she had nothing to give. Why? Was it me? Her dad? The divorce? Or was it unkind classmates, teen magazines, along with her acute sensitivities to cultural funhouse mirrors everywhere she looked?
At one point, a therapist asked me to share a wish for her. Okay, this: That you know, as well as I do, your gifts: your imagination, your creativity . . . And I’ve been coming back to her with that wish, that honest list, ever since.
Then she began to believe the list, and use it. At work. After work, discovering dance (not even on the list!). And now, home improvement. How can I possibly feel anything but thrilled to see another passion emerge?
So, she’d bought new stuff for the wall—drywall mud, a roller, special paint. But these were tools and materials—leading to artistic choices, experimentation, realization. Leading to success, in this case. With more of this, she’ll find an increased trust in her ability to visualize something and pull it off. Then, to enjoy it. The spirit of anticonsumerism is there—the willingness to explore and invent, which new stuff doesn’t often encourage, being ready-made and finished.
The installation of the sink, supporting cabinet, and countertops was almost done, weeks past the promised date. I got a text and photo. I could almost hear her despair.
“Mom, can you see it? It’s crooked! Maybe it doesn’t show in the picture, but there’s a little chunk taken out of the wood on the right side!”
I thought I could see it, but I wasn’t sure. I’d have to look in person.
Standing in her kitchen doorway, all I could see was a sensational transformation—a lightness in the fused wood countertops, the clean white of the sink, and the new cabinets under it, which managed to be a shade brighter than the old ones while at the same time matching them perfectly.
“I’m blown away!” was all I could say.
“Okay, but look here!” She ran her hand over the blunt end of the counter where it touched the edge of the sink.
“I wouldn’t call it crooked, but the sawed edge is a little wavy. I think it could be whittled down, sort of, with a sharp knife.”
“I thought that! But they said it was at a bad angle for that.”
“Well, it wouldn’t take much. Even if you didn’t do anything, I doubt anyone would notice. You’re going to have stuff on the counter, dishes in the sink. Visual distractions.”
She seemed to feel better after this conversation. In fact, she wanted to talk about the problem of her living-room floor. It wasn’t flat. It wouldn’t support ceramic tile, and you couldn’t use the laminate wood flooring, either, real or fake. That’s why it was carpeted. But the carpet had been through two cats, and it showed. Carpets hold their whole history in their fibers and underneath.
“I have to rip it up, don’t I?”
“Yes. What’s underneath?”
“Linoleum. In squares. But I have an idea.”
I saw the floor when it was all done. She had ripped up the carpet and painted the linoleum white. No leftover paint, interior or exterior, would have worked here, and she knew it—it was a high-traffic area and required some tough floor paint. She bought some pure white, but made it cream-colored by mixing it with some old yellow and purple paint that a former occupant of the house had left in the shed. She rolled it on. The super-thin gaps between the squares still showed, though. With many coats of paint, they might have disappeared, or dissolved into a subtle grid. But her idea was to make use of the grid. She bought a lacy stencil to fit the squares—online, I suppose—and brushed its negative space onto every linoleum tile in the room. If she had used a contrasting color, the result would have been too busy, detracting from the other things in the room. But she used white paint on top of the cream color, tying the design and background closer together. The effect was almost more texture than figure.
It was a floor you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
I thought what she did was brilliant and beautiful, finding a cheerfully bright, cleaner-feeling alternative to carpet. Paint and most carpet are both essentially plastic (natural carpeting doesn’t hold up as well), but the dense pile of carpet fibers was obviously more voluminous. She could sweep and mop this new floor herself, without having to rent a shampoo machine or hire professionals. She’ll definitely save money and spare the landfill another living room carpet, with pad, tacks, and tacking strips. (It’s apparently possible, but difficult, to recycle these products.) This new floor says who she is—is becoming. Someone inventive, bold, clever, and full of inspired energy.
She’s also, I’m beginning to realize, a remarkable perfectionist. One of her hallway doors was completely flat—it was a simple, modern, unpanelled door. I would have noticed a thousand details about a house before considering that such a door was boring. If I ever were todecide that a flat door was too plain, I’d put the task of getting a different one (and hanging it) behind a thousand other, more urgent, tasks. But her flat door had to go.
She looked everywhere for her more interesting door, including the mega-hardware stores we’re all familiar with. In the end she found what she wanted (and what fit) at the ReStore, a charity-focused used building supplies store about five blocks from my house.
“Don’t you love it, Mom? Only twenty bucks.”
She had enlisted me to help install the door. I knew she could do it herself, that I would end up being mostly backup. But I did have a big box of hinges, maybe two dozen or so I thought we could sort through, since her door didn’t come with them. In fact, it was a box given to me by a staff person at the ReStore, fifteen years earlier. (“You look like a person who could use some free hinges,” he had said, handing me the box.) I’d been using them for this and that project, but too slowly. I liked the idea I might get rid of more.
“You need four-holers for your door. The screw holes are already on the door, see? A lot of these hinges just have three holes. Besides that, some of these are gold and some pewter. And some have rounded corners, some square. Do you need three that absolutely match? If so, this set of three is about it.”
“But they have corners! The chiseled-out places on the door are rounded. We need rounded hinges.”
“You wouldn’t go all the way back to the store to get new hinges, would you? When we have these?” I picked up a chisel, and—with two strokes of the hammer—took out the curve where a curved hinge might have gone. “Two corners per hinge, a couple seconds per corner, three hinges. That’s twelve seconds to accommodate these square-corner hinges. You want to go get three new hinges?”
“No. Just saying I could have gotten them earlier, and not gambled on your box having them.”
She deftly chiseled the last two round corners for the last hinge. All three of the ReStore hinges fit into the door nicely.
“You know, it gets a little embarrassing when the close family of a New Stuff Sucks blogger goes out and buys new stuff, especially when it’s really not necessary,” I said. “Why do you?”
“You wanna know why? I’ll tell you. It’s because we’re fucked. It doesn’t matter.”
I didn’t say anything right away. It was painful to hear this from my favorite girl, but I knew she was right—right in thinking that one possible scenario for her future was finding herself, and her generation, fucked.
I could see that this awareness or belief, however dismal, could bring a certain freedom to a person’s life. Why live a certain way? Why make an effort to incapacitate—in whatever way—the greedy powers-that-be?
It’s true: A boycott of stuff-producers is a long shot when it comes to resisting the kind of catastrophe she had in mind. Sometimes stuff is what people hang onto for comfort in the very face of it. Personal catastrophes always loom larger. Anticonsumerism is up against billions of dollars in researched, fine-tuned advertising. What chance does it have? In the words of one friend, You think you can separate Americans from their stuff? Then sometimes we’re truly, hopelessly trapped: If we don’t purchase such-and-such, we’ll lose our livelihood, or even our lives. Broader, more accidental factors have more influence on spending—the pandemic, supply-chain problems, inflation, pent-up demand.
You never know what will happen on the world scene. I can’t imagine trading what hope I have for the extra freedom that comes from hopelessness. But more than anything, I would hang onto my New Stuff Sucks life because I love it. I find most of it deeply pleasurable—the wild-harvesting, gardening, and super-fresh food. The savings account growing. The beautiful surprises I find in alleys and thrift stores. The joy of fixing things. The mental healthiness from being outside. The sense of abundance. The feeling of independence. The benefits of exercise. The experience of regeneration. The healing perception that nature and the Universe are primarily benevolent—on my side. And, finally, the idea that my small life is aligning itself with a potential solution for survival—whether or not it takes root.
Babies born with a silver phone in their hand will keep it there as they grow up and participate in the world, knowing little about what the lives of their grandparents were really like. I’ll never have a grandbaby, which is fine—this blog is something of a substitute, a place where I get to tell my stories—including stories about what it’s like to not have a phone in the hand, or a screen to sit in front of.
My daughter is now painting the outside of her dingy brown house a fresh-snow white. She’s doing it herself—hoping to get some help from me or a friend, knowing she might not. She just bought her first landscape plant—a flaming red-and-yellow firestick (Euphorbiatirucalli). She got it from a guy, not a store, and the price, she said, was too high. But feeling that the guy probably needed the money, she paid it without haggling. It was a chance to be compassionate, she said.
I have been witnessing her explosion into compassion, self-confidence, artistic pleasure, originality, and even wabi sabi. She’s leaning into a New Stuff Sucks life—while absolutely following her own path.
I really don’t need anything more.