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Excellence Punta Cana Dominican Republic by Ted Murphy 2009 (CC BY 2.0)

My Three Years of No Shopping

Or: Why I won’t be buying lots of expensive gifts or personal items any time soon. [A. I lack funds and desire to do so].

Or: Are shopping malls alone in being scheduled to go the way of the dinosaurs? [A. Looks like the NY Times and its “sister” publications will continue to advance their fossilization process].

I haven’t bought non-essential, non-food, non-household cleaning items for at least three years. My “wedding dress” cost $24.00 on sale and I thought long and hard about making the purchase. I did just order requested essential holiday gifts for my closest family online — practical, necessary items like we read about in Dickens books. Underwear. A hair dryer.

There’s an article in the NY Times right now that I’m certain the entire editorial team loves and is cheering each other about, by PEN award winner, NY Times bestseller, and Parnassus Bookstore owner Ann Patchett, called “My Year of No Shopping”.

Sarah Lawrence and Iowa Workshop grad and bestselling, award-winning novelist and bookstore co-owner Ann Patchett, and dog. She is a few months younger than me. And God only knows how much richer. Alls I got to my name is my Jeep. I just now realized that this article which bothered me even before I knew anything about the author … I could have been at that workshop with this person if Brian Stonehill hadn’t raped me. Probably not, though. They would have kicked me out for offending their fine sensibilities.

So, one may see that while I clip my dirty, scruffy mixed-Jack Russell/Chihuahua rescue dog’s claws by hand, Jeeves McTerrier here gets only the best grooming and pup attire.

However, I doubt that Ann shops at Whole Foods; especially not now that it’s owned by Jeff Bezos!

I’m sorry, sorry — digressing. I also just finished reading another tome about the “Death of Holiday Shopping” in one of the Stansberry publications. This one, written by Alice Lloyd, is “special” just like Ann Patchett’s gripping tale of personal sacrifice. It correctly documents the decline of American department stores and retail in favor of online shopping — a process where consumers automatically seek lower prices and lack the physical temptations of store displays, for-sale signs, and in-person selling. It also contains some unselfconscious white American conservative longing for the days of Saturnalia when “the slaves ran free — if temporarily.”

Alice Lloyd, American Consequences (Porter Stansberry) author longing for the days when slaves temporarily ran free.

Of the two authors, Lloyd at least has some awareness that there are massive economic and social upheavals, even if she does support a “back to the Roman days of patricians, equestrians, plebes and slaves” approach.

I don’t know what to say about my privileged sister Ann Patchett. When she “experimented” with low consumption and maintained it for a year, which she compares to giving up stuff for Lent, she also saved time.

The most obvious glaring, out of touch, tone-deaf problem with Patchett’s charmingly self-obsessed essay is her failure to comprehend that not only now, but for her entire privileged life, millions of Americans and billions around the world have year after year with “no shopping” and the number grows every day not just because they “prefer experiences” to purchasing things, but because they lack the funds. And the fault being, is not that they are “lazy” and “just don’t work hard enough.”

Patchett mentions this at the end, not at the beginning, of her essay. And therein lies the problem. She discusses the teachings of 85-year old Sister Nena, who had taken a vow of poverty at age 18, and who instilled strong Catholic values about the impediment of wealth to understanding Christ (or Buddha, or any other spiritual teachings).

But Patchett never, ever, begins to wonder about the voluntary vow of self-denial undertaken by Sister Nena, who in her vocation does not have to worry about whether or not she will have food or a roof over her head and can fast by choice, and break the fast when she chooses.

As to the other one, Lloyd, who is nostalgic for ancient Rome whether she realizes or not, “slaves” may have run free for the Saturnalia, but the only items they bought were on the instruction of their owners. Slave bodies as well as any items they may have used or temporarily possessed, were the property of owners, continuing on to the present day.

The deeper Patchett problem would be more subtle to the majority of people, I think. Patchett invests a whole paragraph in discussing how she virtuously wore practical, weather-appropriate clothing to interview America’s favorite leading man Tom Hanks at a Washington, DC theater about his book of short stories. I could have gladly lived my whole life not knowing about Tom Hanks’ charming (I haven’t even SEEN the book and I am NOT going to search it out nor include any picture, link or title, because I don’t want it pushed to me via phone, tablet and laptop for the next ten days) … Here is my proposed jacket quote from the WaPo or NY Times review …

Hanks’ slim volume of whimsical tales in the tradition of Steve Martin — America’s “greatest storyteller,” next to Garrison Keillor.

It’s more than possible, probably likely, that some slave labor writer is working on a whitelabeled version of Chelsea Clinton’s short stories right now. Next year, Ann Patchett will probably interview Clinton about those great tales in a Washington theater — but will doubtless feel fine about spending three days shopping for the exact right dress, not a cent over $1,000 and pret-a-porter, being very frugal about it.

Patchett is a perfect illustration of those shovel the material in bookstores, from Padgett’s fine shop to Amazon.

Four years ago, I told many people the facts about the book publishing industry: Just about 100% of people could read, but only 20% of people regularly bought and read books (either e-books or paper books). The reason for this is obvious to anyone who’d ever done any type of actual marketing such as done in legitimate product design and launch, or who had ever worked with the public, such as being a teacher, wait staff, or somebody like me: working with homeless and very low-income families. My motive for this is that I — foolishly — thought that it would be a good economic and social activity to sell more books to more people and have more people regularly reading.

The majority of people don’t buy and read books because a) reading is a leisure activity and people who work two or more jobs to feed their families do not have sufficient leisure time; and b) the majority of those who may have the time choose to spend it otherwise because few, to no, books are published on topics or about people they’d be interested in.

Many books aren’t just boring, repetitive knob-polishing exercises, they’re actively offensive to the people who decline to purchase them, just the same way as Patchett’s article offended me, or books that start out with the dead body of a murdered, raped woman don’t turn me on (whom do they turn on? Hmn. I wonder). Patchett’s first-grade reading teacher elderly Sister Nena, whom I find wholly admirable, and who correctly points out that gross overconsumption will guarantee no spiritual wealth or proper value to life, has plenty of time to read and I am certain, does so, and likely reads material other than holy Scripture. Not too many people have dozens of interests in common with cloistered nuns.

These plainly-obvious, common-sense reasons are still apparently a complete mystery to people who run the NY Times, or who own bookstores and “have editors” they’re required to buy wedding presents for like Ann Patchett.

I’ve had at least two, more like three, years of involuntary no shopping, Ann — and you’re absolutely right. People do not need five lip balms, endless selections of face creams, more clothing that will fit in a couple of drawers and half of a closet, or dozens of pairs of shoes.

Your fine, prestige publication that only publishes the very best of American writing just paid you an amount that would likely do my rent for two months (and I live in Southern California 2 miles from Laguna Beach). I’ve been “downsizing” for more than a decade, and it started when I began to think about how I inherited most of my grandmother’s “stuff” and over the years, paid thousands to store and move it. One day I realized, “You don’t even have much of your own stuff, so why are you preserving these items that she acquired in the age of ‘stuff’?” Few were “valuable antiques.” The items from my family I like most, I still have, like my great-grandmother’s sewing machine, my grandfather’s desk from the Sunkist packing house I’m typing at right now, and my great-grandmother’s cedar hope chest, I still have. If had to get rid of them, I wouldn’t hesitate a second. Everyone who knows me well will laugh because they know that I had a horrible addiction to buying clothing and buying books for years. I have mastered both of these, first by choice, and now, by necessity.

My husband and I seriously considered buying an RV and living it it, like over 350,000 US retirees do right now, only about 10% of them “by choice.” I wrote another article about the 79 year-old lady who lives in her PT Cruiser in senior center parking lots. The people on LA’s Skid Row profiled in The Guardian this week, including one man I remembered who has started a Skid Row writing group, have spent ten, fifteen, twenty, or more years “without shopping.” Now there are more than 55,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. That’s more than the entire population of the town I grew up in. Realistically, both he and I know if circumstances go wrong, we’ll be among them for however long we might last. Poe died face down in the gutter: that is our world and it has not changed.

Becoming a nun is a luxury voluntary vocation that few poor people with families can afford to select. The world’s wealthy need far more slaves and have little need, nor interest, in nuns — unless they cleverly understand that properly deployed nuns may keep slaves from rebellion.

I think I’m glad, in the final instance, that I did not go to the Iowa Writers Program. The reason for the lack is of course, what happened to me 11 days after my 21st birthday (description here; no I have no desire to write more ‘specifically’ about it so the world knows in all details how I got raped out of a Watson Fellowship, Rhodes Scholarship and that Iowa Writers’ Workshop). I filled out the spreadsheet for #MeTooPhD. There were about 1,500 responses when I did it a few days ago.

Going without buying stuff just made Ann Patchett realize she could choose to buy stuff or not. She had some vague reflections on the correct religious teachings: it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven.

Thing is, heaven can be here in this perception, in this life. But people need, as Anil Seth points out, to understand that our bodies and our minds are inextricably linked, and that our minds make their “best guess” as to what our reality is based upon our prior experiences. We do “hallucinate” reality. We know there is sufficient food, shelter, energy, clothing, so that no one needs to go without. It is prior perception and addictive manipulation by a few who have “created” the reality that they have so much and must have more.

We do not have to live like this but the effort to create a new reality will be more and greater than the effort to go to the Moon, to achieve manned flight, to provide education for children free of charge, and to legally end the direct process of the owning of human beings.

Patchett, in her bubble, isn’t a bad woman. But her bubble shows that she is trapped in a child’s understanding of sharing toys, and of giving one’s toy, potentially, to another, as “being good”. She learned that playing with a few simple, older toys was absolutely fine and could be just as nice or even nicer than getting a new toy a dozen times a day.

Non-essential objects are meaningful only in their utility or our experiences and there is such a thing as emotional utility. It would hurt me to give up my grandfather’s desk, a thing that has minimal monetary value. We need clothing to keep our bodies warm, we need a roof over our heads to keep out the rain. We need food in our bellies. We need emotional support. We need recognition that we are human beings. We have desires to see and be seen. To hear and be heard. We are all equal in these needs. And one greedy person’s imagined or desired need does not outweigh the many.

This lesson, I think, was not absorbed by Ms. Patchett in her interactions with the lovely nun Sister Nena.

Human life needs to imagine beyond the “best guess” that the only way to live is few taking from the many. It isn’t about the few consuming every resource and making every choice. We must consider how we treat all living creatures, including trees, because they, too, have rich, varied lives — a quiet, observant woman proved it. Above all there is no real value to life in taking something away from someone else without even thinking.

Because it is conducted by a small group which is only slowly changing, human science has done nothing but try to separate humanity from nature. But in nature, each thing has its place and home unless someone disturbs it. The white American 20th century and early 21st century culture is about nothing but disturbance.

I was going to write this week about success and wealth, and how what our society tells us is “successful” or “important” is far from that. Our daily lives, how we live them, defines success. I have right now, only the ability to write a couple of thousand words “for myself” each week and must invest all other time on guaranteed paying work.

But this morning, Ms Patchett dropped it in my lap. She gave me a much better metaphor than I had been thinking of. Better than taking pictures of the empty Macy’s nearby that will close after Christmas, or the packed WalMart with women’s and children’s clothing going for less than a dollar.

Our status here in the U.S. with the written word, I think, as well as part of our spirits, is somewhere not too far advanced from the days of Tacitus, Livy, Juvenal, and Cicero. The richness is growing in the visual field in certain ways, I think — there’s a lot of interesting television being made around the world. I think there is interesting writing as well.

But not at the New York Times. At the NY Times, it’s still rich women whose minds are stuck in 1932 thinking that they’re important because they’ve written “bestsellers,” and that they have made a giant contribution to human understanding and social well-being if they give up perfumed French soap for Lent.

That’s not what Jesus said or meant, lady — and I’m no Catholic. That church don’t take women like me.