Post 53: Punished for Our Purchases

A couple weeks ago, Terry and I had to buy some new stuff. Once in a while, as I’ve said, it’s unavoidable. At least we could still protest the shopping trip by biking to the store instead of driving there. The temperature was in the three digits, but it was only two miles away and partly on a bike path, where there were no stops. And we had cooling the whole way—evaporative cooling, just like at home. Only we created it ourselves, by moving. The effort of pedaling made sweat bead up on our skin and pushed us through the air so we had a breeze. Nothing’s more delicious than a breeze on wet skin.

On the other hand, nothing’s scarier than riding a bike through a shopping center. Road dangers are multiplied when you’re moving through a giant, haphazard grid of sidewalks, pedestrians, parking areas, and car lanes. Nobody’s expecting bicycles. I sometimes walk my bike on the sidewalks, becoming a pedestrian. And I’m always on high alert in such places.

We made it to our destination, the Homely Despot, at the far end of the center. What we needed there was a new garden hose, because the metal one we thought solved our kinking problem was springing leaks and getting clogged with mineral salts. (Perhaps those metal hoses work better in regions where the water table isn’t falling and getting saltier from human extraction.) I’d never seen a hose at a thrift shop, or any other used-stuff venue, and time was of the essence. So far it was looking like another non-soon, and our gardens would die without infusions of groundwater. Our chickens would, too—they needed their tubs kept full so they could jump in them to cool off their grotesque, but body-chilling, feet.

Chicken feet
Chicken feet (live chicken). When in water, the foot’s blood vessels cool off, then travel through the body, lowering its temperature.

We had nothing else to buy, but I wanted to see what the Despot had to offer in the way of air conditioners. I had heard that some of the newer, smaller ones had increased efficiency, and I especially hoped  to find a small AC unit that would run on my solar panels. Evaporative cooling—except the kind you get on a bike—uses water but less power; air conditioning actually takes some water out of the air but uses quite a bit of power. I already knew the small, portable evap coolers were no good for inside a room; they work by evaporating water and the room soon gets stickier than Florida. Not comfortable. I’d seen some questionable units online (said to be coolers—but were they evap or AC?), and I just wanted to see was available brick-and-mortar-wise.

On the way to the garden and garden-hose department, we couldn’t help but notice a large, flashy display in neon pink and neon blue. Was there even such a thing as neon blue? Not in my experience. Especially not in a display of plants. And these colors were plants—desert plants, some sort of agave or aloe. (They were labeled “majestik,” which sure didn’t sound like a species name to me.)

“Are they real? Or painted?” Terry wondered.

“Look, this blue one has babies coming underneath, and they’re all blue. I don’t see how those could be painted!”

I picked up a neon pink one and Terry grabbed the blue one with the babies (known as “pups” when produced by aloes or agaves). I figured when all our desert flowers were done blooming—like now—the colors would be nice to look at, tucked in with the green stuff.

There wasn’t anything new in the cooler department, though—no mini-AC units, just the old evaporative coolers and window air conditioners, with a portable model, the kind that spews hot air through a papery duct out the window.

We had one of those. Five years ago, I pretty much had to buy a portable unit for my tenant. She said she was suffering from the heat. I took her word for it, knowing that most of this city has at least added air conditioning to their evaporative cooling, if not replaced it altogether. It’s because “swamp” just doesn’t work very well in humidity. Duh. It depends on evaporation into dry air. I used to think people were getting more particular about their indoor temperatures. Getting soft and spoiled. After all, my rooftop swamp cooler was good enough for me. But now I know there’s another possibility: The patterns of weather are changing. For the first three decades I lived in Tucson, the monsoon season brought actual rain with its humidity. It meant all of the outdoors became a gigantic evaporative cooler. You just opened your doors and windows and got the best chill ever. Goosebumps, even. Outdoors, the rain. The spicy smells of wolfberry and greasewood. Spadefoots bleating and coupling and laying eggs.

Spadefoot toad illustration
Spadefoot toad with offspring. Drawing by Kay Sather.

 No tadpoles yet this year, just humidity. But as we stood there in the Despot’s cooler department, I saw something interesting: a small, u-shaped thing that goes around the neck like an airplane pillow and is studded with holes that shoot cooled air upward, past the head. I’d seen it on a commercial somewhere, and was curious; how could such a small device cool an input of hot air? I don’t, as a rule, order things from commercials. But now here it was, in the plastic flesh, and for sixty-some bucks I could take it home and get “personal cooling” that might allow me to work outside in the heat.

With that box of anticipation under my arm, and our neon plants in hand, we arrived at the hose display. How on earth does one choose a hose? The various lengths were written on the packaging, so that was straightforward, but how could we know about durability, lifespan, and resistance to kinking? Was it a matter of getting what you pay for? Or could some of the cheaper ones actually be superior? Both of us were clueless. I picked one that seemed heavy, and was labeled “industrial.” Terry went along.

We got back on our bikes and left for home, with new stuff! How exciting.

pink succulent
Poor, pink-painted plant. Punished!

When we got home, however, I noticed a few pieces of neon pink gravel on the soil next to my pink plant. Paint overspray, without a doubt. That was disappointing. I might as well have painted some of my own plants, choosing any color in my paint drawers. Terry immediately got busy transplanting his blue “mystik” into a nicer pot than the plastic one it came in. But that didn’t go well, either. The thing had no roots at all; it was more or less rotten at the bottom. Probably the paint was toxic.

He held it up. “We’ve been had,” he said.

What a stupid purchase I’d encouraged us to make. I should have known that a plant without a name, without identification, would be something weird and commercial. How could I have been beguiled by the bright, unnatural colors?

I cheered myself by acknowledging that the whole thing was a lesson I clearly needed to learn.

But there was more fun to unbox: the neckpiece that blew cold air. I wondered how such a small gadget could turn hot ambient air into multiple cool gusts blowing upward on my head and cheeks, but both the ad I’d seen and the smiling, comfortable couple featured on the package convinced me I was about to experience a miracle.

It was sleek-looking, already charged, and when I hit the on button and put in around my neck, every hole did indeed send a little stream of air upward! This was going to be worth the money. I waited for the jets of air to turn cool. Waited, and waited. Was the air feeling a bit cold now, or—was I imagining it? Even warm air, as I already knew from biking, would make sweaty skin, like my face, feel cool. But I didn’t even feel that. Try as I might to give the device the benefit of every doubt, I finally had to admit it just didn’t work.

At least the hose worked. It did kink as we dragged it, but not as readily as some hoses I’d known. The chickens and the gardens were happy with their water—which only came out the end of the hose, as was proper. The first week we used it, anyway. After that, a powerful spurt of water suddenly erupted from the joint between the hose rubber and the fitting attached to the hose bib. No, not from the place where hoses routinely leak, when they simply need tightening, or when they lose their seal due to grit in the threads. This geyser came from a split in the hose material itself, at the edge of the metal fitting, where tightening did nothing.

We’d have to get a new hose right away, because leaks are too costly in this desert. Water in this climate is precious. A matter of life and death. The heat brought this to our awareness all day and into the night.

It meant another evaporatively cooled bike trip to the Homely Despot. A little visit to their returns desk.

What are the chances that three out of the three new items we bought that day would have to be returned? Who knows. I know that hype and packaging and store displays have a way of making us believe that what we’re buying will perform not only to our expectations, but beyond them, all the way into our fantasies of bliss. If someone writing a blog about new stuff sucking—that’s me, of course—can be easily hoodwinked by the old bright-colors ploy, is there any hope for conquering humanity’s addiction to new stuff? To ending the resource extraction and pollution that inevitably go along with every new purchase? Again, I don’t know. I actually rather doubt it, seeing what some humans are capable of these days—have been capable of, for that matter, going back in history.

Why do I keep doing this, then—volunteering so much of my time writing against new stuff, and trying to live against consumerism myself?

There are two reasons I can think of.

One is, I suppose, that I want to do something, and this odd little crusade is what the Universe has led me to.

 Another is that the new stuff sucks lifestyle is pretty fun. Most people enjoy finding free treasures and goodies to eat, eating fresh food with unbelievable flavor, contributing more to the savings account, enjoying getting around town instead of enduring traffic jams and lights, and—all the other pleasures I’ve written about for the past year. But the delights of this alternative life seem to be a secret. I can tell by looking around me, listening to the news, reading reports, talking to friends . . . Everyone’s still buying new stuff. Even me. Well, it’s hard to keep a secret, especially a happy one. As a writer, how could I not write about this passion?

It’s not everyone’s passion. There are millions of ways to fight climate warming, evil politics, and human suffering. The present, after all, is as important as the future—always unknown. I believe in the “responsible consumerism” cause, but I wouldn’t want to talk anyone out of time they spend on their own perfect fight.

And yet I believe “civilization” needs to be turned around in many ways. Back to our grandparents’ way of life? All the way back to tribal life? Oh geez, I don’t know. It’s way too soon to get idealistic about what we’ll need and what will destroy us. (Is destroying us.) But I believe we need to just start walking in the direction of less. Less new stuff. Less personal property. A bit less comfort (which—another secret!—can lead to more pleasure). And of course, less people on the planet. (Ahem! Fewer people on the planet.) See posts 46 and 47.

The younger you are, the harder it is to imagine doing without the newest stuff. Remember those studies that came out after cell phones got popular? The ones where kids said they’d rather lose a leg than give up their phone? I, on the other hand, feel like these “phones” (portable computers) just came onto the scene yesterday. Maybe the virus era, having reduced my social life, has reduced my need for such a thing. But the point holds: it’s harder for upcoming generations to even consider living without things that their elders and ancestors would find no use for.

However, even us ancient ones are trapped into buying things we never needed before—especially technology. Perhaps we still want to engage with society. Get recent information about the world. Access quality entertainment. Take advantage of a few new health products or medical inventions. Visit children who have so easily moved away. Eat a packaged treat. Or just . . . survive.

Because these days, we have to buy certain new things just to survive. An observation that allows me, conveniently, to return to the subject of coolers as I wind up this post.

This month has seen thousands of Europeans die from a widespread heat wave. At the same time a third of the U.S. was officially under an excessive heat warning. The temperatures here in Tucson were also deadly. But we have coolers. Of course, if there’s no rain, the evaporative ones won’t work very well. For some people, air conditioning is now a matter of survival. Here, right where I live.

So having some new stuff is now a requirement for survival. But the production and disposal of new stuff is also killing us. Sounds like a real predicament to me. We could give up. It’s a valid choice. Doesn’t sound like a good one to me, though.

We can’t avoid buying new stuff. If we all could, if we all did, the world might start evolving toward health and sanity. (Yeah, every solution creates some new problems. We’d have to solve them.)

But we don’t need perfection here. Just a steady walk away from silly stuff. Whims—like bright colors. Retail therapy. I really believe that the farther you can go in this direction, away from the fake news of newness, the more satisfaction you’ll find. I’m even more convinced of this after my recent fruitless trip to the Homely Despot.

2 thoughts on “Post 53: Punished for Our Purchases

  1. I thought I was the only one who used the term ‘Home Despot’ (more on that later)- I like your version better: ‘Homely-D’. Have Terry (or you) send me by IM of your location as I have something to bring by for you (I think you’ll like it). Plus, I want to buy an art card set from ‘The Man’ (set #2, if still available); I have ‘El Payaso’ prominently displayed. Love the Blog. Mark (HS bud of Terry’s)


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