Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?

A bunch of stuff

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original photos by TTBOOK staff. 

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Original Air Date: 
September 05, 2020

If you wrote a list of all the things you own in your house, how long would it be? We surround ourselves with possessions, but at what point do they start to possess us?

whale at House on the Rock
Audio

When Angelo visited the House on the Rock for the firs time, at first he saw a testament to one man's obsession and demented imagination. But then he started to think — does he have his own bizarre collection of stuff in his home?

Length: 
4:33
washing machine in a house.
Articles

In her new book, author Eula Biss reckons with a new phase in her life, moving from an apartment in Chicago to the first house her family owns. While that dream is about as American as the proverbial apple pie, Biss ruminates on the reality that it’s an impossible dream for many people.

Length: 
11:56
tea set
Audio

Journalist Adam Minter wrote a whole book about what happens to our things when we don’t want them anymore. It’s called “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” Angelo asked him: why don’t we think more about the things we donate?

Length: 
12:12
disposable razor
Audio

Half the reason we buy so much new stuff is that our old stuff keeps breaking. Author Giles Slade says there's a reason for that — planned obsolescence.

Length: 
7:35
The Museum of Everyday Life is in Clare Dolan’s barn.
Articles

"Museum of Everyday Life" founder and curator Clare Dolan calls it "an ongoing, revolutionary experiment" — a celebration of "the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.

Length: 
12:12
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September 05, 2020
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Anne Strainchamps:

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Angelo Bautista:

And I'm Angelo Bautista. So Anne, I went on a little field trip and I just have to talk about it. Have you ever heard of the House on the Rock?

Anne Strainchamps:

Yes. People have been telling me about it since I moved to Wisconsin 30 years ago. It's like a big tourist attraction, a house on a really big rock.

Angelo Bautista:

Yeah. Everyone told me to go check it out too, but they wouldn't really tell me much else about it. They would say it was built by this man named Alex Jordan. He spent decades building it, but they don't really say much else.

Angelo Bautista:

Can I go up?

Anne Strainchamps:

So what is the thing about the House on the Rock?

Angelo Bautista:

Well, I expected this architectural house tour, which it was at first and no one, I don't think actually lived here, this quirky mid-century style Japanese home. How could you? But then you see the instruments that are playing themselves.

Anne Strainchamps:

Instruments that are just playing themselves?

Angelo Bautista:

Yeah. They're like these music machines that are wrapped around these instruments and they're plucking the guitars and bowing the strings and playing the piano. It's like a small ensemble.

Anne Strainchamps:

Okay. That's a little bizarre.

Angelo Bautista:

This is like out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. And then after that, the rest of the house turns into a NASA trip almost. At one point you're walking down a 19th century main street with a musical carriage, and then in the next room you're face to face with a giant whale. You can't even see the whole thing.

Angelo Bautista:

Is this ivory? These are whale bones. How does one acquire all of this stuff?

Angelo Bautista:

And then one after another, there are these outlandish room-sized music boxes with whole orchestras and ensembles, rooms with airplanes and a thousand guns and dollhouses.

Anne Strainchamps:

Wait, literally a thousand?

Angelo Bautista:

Literally. There were too many to count, but it felt like a thousand. Yeah.

Speaker 4:

This is the set of a horror movie.

Angelo Bautista:

And then just when you think it's over, you descend into hell, where you'll find the Noah's Ark of carousels and 100 wooden angels staring down at you.

Angelo Bautista:

What the (beep).

Angelo Bautista:

By the time you get to the giant organ room, you're consumed with so much eye candy, you don't know how much more you can take.

Anne Strainchamps:

So would you say you're stuffed?

Angelo Bautista:

Yes. It was a crescendo of stuff.

Anne Strainchamps:

Where do you get a 30 foot tall chandelier made up of smaller chandeliers? Oh my God look.

Angelo Bautista:

The one question I kept coming back to is why? What is the point of having a thousand fake crowns and creepy dolls? On one hand, you could say that the house is a testament to one man's obsession and demented imagination. But when I got back home, I looked around at the mess of dishes in my sink and the 20 mismatched coffee mugs and jars and all the unhung paintings from thrift stores, my couches with way too many throw pillows, the three microwaves in my basement, the books I tell myself I'll read, but I never do. And I thought, "Well, how different am I from Alex Jordan?"

Anne Strainchamps:

Yeah. How different are any of us really? Why do we have so much stuff?

Angelo Bautista:

Exactly.

Anne Strainchamps:

And that's what we're talking about today. Our material possessions have profound effects on our lives, and those effects can be as big and complex as entire economies or as small as owning a washing machine. Even that can be complicated.

Eula Biss:

My adult life, I decide, can be divided into two distinct parts; the time before I owned a washing machine, and the time after. I consider the possibility that the washing machine more than the house has changed my life. I call my sister and tell her that what I've really done is buy a $400,000 container for a washing machine. As I say this, I'm aware that the cost of our house was closer to $500,000, but I don't say that out loud. It makes me too uncomfortable.

Anne Strainchamps:

That's Eula Biss reading from her book Having and Being Had. It's a collection of essays about her experience buying a house and about all the philosophical and emotional baggage that came with it. Steve Paulson wanted to unpack it with her.

Eula Biss:

It's a stew of emotions, guilt over having things that I know other people don't and can't have, guilt over what the production of those things or the acquisition of those things cost other people's lives. But I think I also just have a deep discomfort with material things, even though there is some attraction for me to things, to nice things or beautiful things, aesthetics of things.

Steve Paulson:

Well, I had to laugh when you were writing about paging through a restoration hardware catalog, which is kind of like house porn for upper middle class people. I mean the stuff they sell is pretty expensive, but I have to say, I find it fun flipping through the catalog and kind of gross at the same time.

Eula Biss:

Actually the catalog itself is gross. I'm not even sure I opened the one that I wrote about because it was so huge. It was so massive that it's bulk just offended me.

Steve Paulson:

So what catalogs do you look through then?

Eula Biss:

All these uninvited catalogs come along and I'll flip through IKEA and I'll flip through Crate and Barrel and Room and Board. And it feels like, I don't know, a kind of voyeurism. It's not unenjoyable

Steve Paulson:

What I find so interesting about this, I mean, I have that feeling too, is there's both pleasure and discomfort, kind of simultaneously.

Eula Biss:

Yes. Yeah. Pleasure and discomfort and disgust. Those are some of the same emotions that came up for me when I bought a house. Occupying this house has made my life easier and more comfortable in a number of ways, some of them small, some of them large from minor things like the fact that I don't have to carry my bicycle up a bunch of stairs to an apartment anymore, to more major things like my son walks to our local elementary school. But even though, and maybe even because I was enjoying all the comforts of this house soon after we bought it, I was also somewhat disgusted by what felt to me like the excesses of middle class American life.

Steve Paulson:

Who do you mean by that? What kinds of excesses?

Eula Biss:

The amount of space I have in this house, it's a two bedroom house. Really it's a lot of space for three people. And this was made obvious to me when very early in owning the home before we'd even put any furniture in our front room, in our living room, a woman knocked on the door, a Mexican woman who had four children with her. And she said, "We want to know if we can rent your front room." And I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. We live here." But she was confused because there's absolutely nothing in that room. And she said, "But it's empty." That was a moment where I was really forced to reevaluate the amount of space I was occupying and how excessive it seemed from the point of view of a woman who thought just one room in our house would be enough space for her family of five.

Steve Paulson:

Yeah. Well, it seems like we're not just talking about material possessions or even affluence, we're also talking about white privilege. And it's worth pointing out, you live in a racially mixed neighborhood in Chicago which is gentrifying. New people are moving in who are white, like you, while the older residents are black. What kind of issues does that raise for you?

Eula Biss:

Lots of issues and thoughts and feelings about white privilege and my participation in that system. White privilege going back hundreds of years is just intrinsically tied to property rights. And there's a long network of laws and policies, some of them official, some of them unofficial that have benefited white people like myself and allowed us to build wealth and own property at the expense of other people's, not just wealth, but other people's freedom and livelihoods. And knowing that history is part of what makes me feel very conflicted about owning property. And at the same time, do I want the emotional psychological security that comes with owning a house, and also the financial security of this investment that will then be passed on to my child? Yes, I want that. And that's at war with my discomfort.

Steve Paulson:

So learning about that, did that make you feel worse about owning your own house?

Eula Biss:

Yeah. In some ways. I think it just helped me understand what I'd really invested in, which is a kind of linchpin of capitalism.

Steve Paulson:

So how do you classify your own social or economic status? Are you middle class? Are you upper middle class?

Eula Biss:

When I started working on this book, this project, I thought of myself as middle class. That term itself is so wide and poorly understood and poorly defined in this country, that it's close to meaningless to think of yourself as middle class or call yourself middle class. When I started looking at numbers and seeing how unusual it is for someone to have some of the... not the stuff that I have, but the kind of security that I have. And by that, I mean, health insurance, a salary, an account that I'm keeping for my child to go to college and a retirement account. So that collection of safety nets is what I believe makes me rich.

Steve Paulson:

Oh, so you consider yourself rich?

Eula Biss:

After doing quite a bit of anguished thought and research, I think I do. I think it's politically important for me to acknowledge my economic privilege, my wealth, which would, I I'll mention be fairly invisible to a casual observer. My life looks like a modest middle-class life, but I understand myself as rich.

Steve Paulson:

You write very explicitly about how much things cost and how much money people actually make. And you reveal that your salary is $73,000 and your household income is $125,000. This is not the kind of thing that people talk about in public. I mean, unless they want to talk about how little they make or how underpaid they are, how exploited they are. You put that out there.

Eula Biss:

It was extremely uncomfortable to do that. I made the decision very early on in this book that when I talked about money, I was going to name explicit sums. That was a rule I made for myself. But I've found it excruciating harder than almost anything I've written about. And I've written about all kinds of subjects that people would consider either private or uncomfortable. I've written about race, my own racial privilege. I've written a fairly graphic description of my own experience giving birth to my child. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that actually just naming my salary and my household income felt so exposing and uncomfortable. And I really squirmed within that decision and that rule that I made for myself.

Steve Paulson:

Why does it make you so uncomfortable?

Eula Biss:

That's a great question. I think I had to write the whole book to answer that. It made me uncomfortable to be located class-wise precisely, and it made me uncomfortable because I know from looking at the numbers, that I make considerably more than I have considerably more than most people in this country. Having that exposed felt incriminating. But you know what was hardest about it? For me was not just feeling exposed, it was being exposed in front of myself. I think I did have this fantasy of myself as an artist who lived outside the system and was anticapitalist, but I definitely don't, and I'm deeply invested in the financial sense.

Steve Paulson:

There's another conclusion you might come to that maybe capitalism has more value than you realize. It gives you some of these things that you had actually wanted. Retirement, possibility to save for your son's education, to have a house that appreciates, so you're not just sort of throwing away your money in rent. Maybe it's not so bad.

Eula Biss:

Well, it's not bad for me, but I get those things because other people don't have them. And I think we could imagine an economic system in which everyone would have their retirement provided for and private retirement accounts would not be something that people needed or did. We could imagine a system in which education was provided for everyone. And I am very aware of the fact that I'm on the winning end of capitalism, but do I think that my community, my immediate neighborhood, the society at large has benefited from that system? No. And actually I think that's where the loss comes from in my life. I can see all around me, ways in which the system has damaged people that I care about and that I'm close to, and damaged my ability to have close communal relationships with the people around me.

Anne Strainchamps:

That was Steve Paulson talking with Eula Biss. Her new book is called Having and Being Had. Coming up, a trip to the purgatory of things, the thrift store, where old stuff goes to be reborn. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps:

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. We're talking about stuff this hour, and I want to bring back our producer, Angelo Bautista.

Angelo Bautista:

Hi.

Anne Strainchamps:

Angelo is always coming in on Monday mornings with some cool new thing to wear, which he always, always seems to have found in a thrift store.

Angelo Bautista:

Okay. I need a cart.

Anne Strainchamps:

Angelo, you're pretty much like a thrift store addict, I think.

Angelo Bautista:

Yeah. Yeah. I think you could call me that. So many mugs. I think I got it from my dad. He's from the Philippines, so thrifting kind of runs in our blood. And going to Goodwill became this way for us to bond.

Anne Strainchamps:

Look at this one. This has my dad's name on it.

Angelo Bautista:

I kind of want this. I think it's an experience that a lot of people share.

Adam Minter:

Some of my earliest memories are going with my grandmother to garage sales.

Angelo Bautista:

This is Adam Minter.

Adam Minter:

That's what we would do on Tuesdays in Minneapolis. She would pick me up at the crack of dawn and we would park in front of these houses and wait for the garages to open so that we would be the first people to pounce on the stuff. And I have very clear memories, I think four or five years old, looking into cigar boxes full of costume jewelry with my grandmother.

Speaker 8:

It's been such a long time. Oh my God. Wait, is this a globe bar cart?

Adam Minter:

That's when I first really developed an appreciation for stuff that maybe other people don't value, but that we, and I say, we, my grandmother and I could find value in.

Speaker 8:

No. Someone's already bought it. No.

Adam Minter:

That's where my fascination with second hand and with thrift stores and with flea market started. And it becomes a very deep relationship if you have memories associated with them. "This is the sweater that I found with my grandmother on my birthday at a garage sale." Or, "This is the shirt I wore when I had my first kiss." Those become very deep emotional attachments and they go beyond just the material. They become sort of the spiritual relationship we have to our things, and it's one of the reasons I think it makes it so hard for us to let go of them as well.

Speaker 8:

I'm so upset about this globe bar.

Angelo Bautista:

And I'm sure you've taken a box of things you don't want and dropped it off at Goodwill.

Anne Strainchamps:

Many. And I've never thought about them again.

Angelo Bautista:

Well, Adam wrote a whole book about what happens to our things when we don't want them anymore. It's called Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. And I asked him, why don't we think more about the things we donate?

Angelo Bautista:

(singing)

Adam Minter:

I tend to think of Goodwill in some ways as sort of the stuff equivalent of the slaughterhouse. I mean, people who eat meat, don't tend to want to think about where that meat comes from. And to some extent that's similar with Goodwill. I think a lot of people don't want to think about what happens when they put something through that door and that there is such a flood of stuff, not just in North America, but around the world, that thrift stores and secondhand stores and flea markets and used clothing markets in developing, they simply can't handle it all.

Angelo Bautista:

See, I feel very complicated when I walk into a Goodwill because I will go in there and I'll see so much stuff. And sometimes I'll walk away empty handed because none of it's good. And then I think, "Well, if I don't want it, will anyone else want any of this?" Part of the reason I shop at Goodwill and other thrift stores is that it feels like this is a responsible thing to do sustainably. I'm not buying new things, I'm buying used things, but is what I'm doing really making that much of a dent?

Adam Minter:

Well, shopping at Goodwill is a good thing to do, but the trade data shows us something kind of disturbing in my mind. And that is that the fastest growing source of used clothing in the world right now is China. They're buying a lot of clothing, a lot of fast fashion, low quality clothing that's effectively disposable. And when they're done with it and they're done with it quickly, they're putting them in donation bins or more likely selling them, and that stuff is flowing into emerging markets as well. Places like East Africa, which is the world's largest market for used clothing, they are connected directly to the Goodwills. And so that clothing in the Goodwill that nobody wants has to compete with clothing that's flowing into East Africa from China and from Malaysia and from other emerging economies where people are upwardly mobile and they don't want to buy secondhand anymore. They want to buy new.

Adam Minter:

And so I think it's a good thing to be buying secondhand clothing, to use a term that's become quite common in a different circumstance, it's flattening the curve a little bit. But again, it's such a big curve and such a huge flood of stuff coming into the secondhand markets globally, that it really isn't making that much of a difference on an individual basis.

Angelo Bautista:

These parts of your book are to me, I think the most disheartening. When we talk about Chinese production made in China, things are made to last not as long. It's hard to see that the whole system will last that much longer either.

Adam Minter:

Right. I mean, it's interesting because there's a temptation, and at one point when I was writing the book tempted to do it as well. You could say, "Well, this is China's fault. This low quality stuff, this cheap stuff." The decline in quality really began with the industrial revolution 200 years ago. And it's a process that really accelerated during and after World War II, when in the United States especially, production had to become very fast, very efficient, had to use as little materials as possible. And those manufacturing processes really rolled over into the post-war consumer economy. And what China has done is just they've done it better than anybody else. They've made cheaper stuff and cheaper stuff if you know what I mean.

Adam Minter:

Now it's true that China can make very good stuff, but consumer demand for this low cost and low quality stuff has been very high. It does lead one to wonder where in the end it ends. I'm not sure.

Angelo Bautista:

Yeah. And I'm wondering how exactly can we turn the tide? How do we get people to respect their stuff more and even maybe repair their stuff?

Adam Minter:

That was sort of my pessimistic take on it. I do have an optimistic take that sort of starts from a dark place. And that is anybody who has gone through a home clean out of a friend, a relative, whatever relationship that is. Somebody who's downsizing their home to go into assisted living, or who's passed away, knows what a painful process that can be. And it's a process that's accelerating because we're starting to lose this very affluent generation of sort of the greatest generation and the boomers and their children are being left with, in many cases, very large homes filled with stuff that they have to get rid of.

Adam Minter:

I actually look at how this process plays out in the United States and in Japan, where they actually have industries devoted to helping families take care of this process. And at the end of it, everybody says, "I'm not going to do this to my kids." And that was very striking to me. Now, I don't know if these folks who just went through this very emotionally painful process of cleaning out say a parent's things, will then stop doing target runs. But I think that that's a very profound experience and I think it's going to have a generational impact.

Angelo Bautista:

What was one of the hardest things that you've had to give up or give away?

Adam Minter:

My mother passed away in 2013 and it was left to my sister and I to take care of her things. And she actually had a very modest apartment and I was living in Shanghai, and it oiled down ultimately to my mother's beloved wedding china. We both knew that she loved it and she wouldn't want to let it go. And so I remember us standing in the garage, looking at each other and saying, "This meant something to mom. You should have it." "No, you should have it." "No, you should have it." And finally realizing that as much as it meant to her, it wasn't something that meant something to us. And so there was the decision made to take it to the Goodwill. And that was quite emotional. The decision to donate this thing that meant so much to my mother into a system that essentially anonymizes it. That sentiment of my mother has sort of disappeared into the ether if you will. So it was very painful.

Angelo Bautista:

I'm very sorry about that, by the way.

Adam Minter:

Yeah. Those are tough moments, and when I reported this book and I saw moments like that, I went on a clean out in Japan, Kamakura, Japan, and it was a woman who was cleaning out a home that had been lived in by her grandmother and her parents and her. Her grandmother had been in her late 90s, I believe, and she had just recently passed away. And there was these beautiful cedar dressers. And inside these dressers were these handmade kimonos made by her grandmother who had grown up in pre-war Japan. And they were just absolutely gorgeous, embroidered and everything. And there was drawer after drawer of them. The woman who was showing this to me, she started tearing up and she says, "I can't keep all these. I don't have room in my home in Yokohama." And there was a moment where she paused and she said, "A kimono, it's given to a mother who gives it to her daughter. Not so easy to give up."

Adam Minter:

And I think all of us as human beings at some point in this society in which we live in, we have to go through that moment. It's profoundly shaping, and I think it's one of the reasons why I'm convinced that I think over the next few years, I think we will see a shift in attitudes towards stuff by the generation that's helping this retiring and passing away generation of boomers and the greatest generation helping them as they move on.

Angelo Bautista:

So when it comes to buying things, piece of clothing, a washer or a car or a phone, this decision is not only for us, but it's going to be for whoever will take this item eventually when it leaves our hands.

Adam Minter:

Right.

Angelo Bautista:

What should we do? What are the best practices?

Adam Minter:

Well, I think you just hinted at it. Speaking just for myself, I try and buy better. You buy better and buy less. And so always be thinking in terms of that thing that you own, does it have another owner? And if you're confronted with a purchase in many cases, but not in all cases, single use is going to be the cheaper option. But if you can be thinking in terms of buying for that next user as well, that's a really great approach. A revolution in consumption, if that's what we're looking at, it has to start somewhere. And if it starts at the higher end of the market, that's not the end of the world. Hopefully, that inspires and encourages and enables manufacturers lower down in the market to make durable things as well. I mean, ultimately we all want to see the mass retailers, the Targets, the Walmarts selling more durable stuff as well. I think they're going to take inspiration from smaller manufacturers first and see how it works out for them. So let's support those who are making that durable stuff and hope we can bring the prices down.

Anne Strainchamps:

That's journalist Adam Minter. His book is called Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. And that was Angelo Bautista talking with him. Did you know there's a light bulb in California that hasn't gone out since 1901. So why does it feel like I'm replacing mine every six months? I mean, half the reason we buy so much new stuff is that our old stuff keeps breaking. Well, there's a reason for that, planned obsolescence. Giles Slade is the author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Charles Monroe-Kane called him up to ask, "What is wrong with my dishwasher?"

Charles Monroe-Kane:

So I bought a new dishwasher about 23 months ago, right?

Giles Slade:

Oh, yeah.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

It has a 24 month warranty. I'm now on 25 months of owning that dishwasher and it's going bad. I swear to God that happens to me all the time. Maybe it's anecdotal, but all my friends talk about it. Same with cars. Is that actually built in?

Giles Slade:

Can I guess a brand name?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Sure. Go ahead.

Giles Slade:

Is it a Maytech?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

It is a Maytech. Well, just tell me what's going on in Maytech.

Giles Slade:

Well, okay. So think about this first of all, I mean, you have this thing that used to be a luxury item. It was marketed towards women as a labor saving device, a luxury item. Except now, you can't go and buy a condo or a house without one in it. It's a luxury item that's become accepted as a standard necessity. But unless you're willing to spend thousands of dollars on a meal, the device itself is essentially disposable. And you got 24 and a half months out of it?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Yeah.

Giles Slade:

That's actually pretty good. Now, did you try to repair it first?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Yes, I did. I tried it. And it's funny because the guy came to have it repaired and he says it was the spinning mechanism and he said, "Oh yeah, those things go out."

Giles Slade:

And did you try to disassemble the spinning mechanism?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

I did try to disassemble the spinning mechanism.

Giles Slade:

Did you break the spinning mechanism?

Charles Monroe-Kane:

I did break it, and that's why I had to have the guy come and put in a new one for $150.

Giles Slade:

Okay. Now that's planned obsolescence. Okay. So they're forcing you into a position as often as they can where you're making a decision between repair or new, repair or new. And Apple's the champion of this.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Not to be too frank here, but doesn't that kind of piss you off. I just feel like I'm being lied to and manipulated.

Giles Slade:

Okay. Now there's all kinds of knock-on sociological effects of the fact that yes, in fact, you are being lied to, you're being misrepresented and really they're selling you this one so they can sell you a better one later on. Yeah. But imagine a whole culture based on the devaluation of truth in the habit of honesty.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Wow.

Giles Slade:

You have this 150, 200-year tradition of being cheated and manipulated and then swayed, and eventually it has knock on effects where you do not expect a manufacturer to have honest relationships with you. And then perhaps you do not expect your elected representatives to have honest business relationships with you.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

Wow.

Giles Slade:

Yeah.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

I'm going to take it to what I think is the pinnacle. I'm sitting here hearing you talk and I'm thinking about waste. And I think about climate change, which is no accident that this corresponds with, of course, modern capitalism and corresponds with this planned obsolescence. How atrocious is this for the environment?

Giles Slade:

Well, I mean, you've heard this before, it's completely unsustainable. It was okay when maybe 5% of the globe, 10%, 23% engaged in this rampant consumerism that made us all rich and gave us this material wellbeing that's basically unrivaled in the history of the world. But of course the trouble with that is everybody wants it, which is not to say they don't deserve to have it. Of course they do as much as anybody does, but at the same time there's not enough stuff to make the stuff that everybody wants. And we're just going to go into a hole of destroying the planet in order to achieve that stuff.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

How did we get here? How did obsolescence become part of our daily consumer life?

Giles Slade:

Capitalism works well because we need to buy new things regularly. So what America really invented which is a precursor and a requirement for planned obsolescence, is disposability. We discovered early on in the '10s or '20s, and actually before that because King Camp Gillette, the guy who invented the disposable razor blade, had been trying to do this for 20 years. He worked for a guy who invented the bottle top, the crimped bottle top. He realized working for this guy that what he needed was a manufactured item that could only be used once so that massive amounts of it could be produced and purchased. And we're at this peculiar moment in history where we require massive amounts of disposable items and we can't produce them fast enough to meet the pandemic need. We need tests that can be carried on your person and performed immediately with results immediately. We can't meet that need yet. And we need hundreds of thousands, millions of items of PPE and we can't meet that need yet.

Charles Monroe-Kane:

I have a question for you about imagination. Are we even capable of a culture to even imagine a different world?

Giles Slade:

Well, with our choice of culture, with material culture, consumer culture, there are a whole series of different decisions that have actually already been made. But I think a lot of people, especially these days are critiquing American society, consumer society, global capitalist society in very interesting and correct ways. And I think we've perceived that this unrivaled pursuit of wealth and greed and material has a real downside to it. It doesn't give us what we need most, which is community relationships with other people. And so for us, a new technology is inherently a good thing. And there's an assumption inherent in technology that one man should be able to do by himself what many men can do? This is a powerful technology, and that's a value that's inherently opposed to community. Our basic human needs aren't being fulfilled. We have lost contact with what those basic human needs are, and we're trying to arrange for cheap and easy substitutes that just don't work.

Anne Strainchamps:

Giles Slate is the author of Made to Break. And that was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with him.

Clare Dolan:

I was driving down the road and saw this completely derelict ramshackle house with a for sale sign. Just like every American I thought, "Wait a minute. That could be mine." And part of it was that barn just sort of said, "I'm an empty barn." In that magical moment when they were giving out those really bad loans to people who shouldn't get them, I was one of those. I didn't have any income. The bank lady was out of her mind. So anyway, bought the place and having the barn began the whole thing.

Steve:

Hi, how are you?

Anne Strainchamps:

Hi.

Clare Dolan:

Hi, how are you?

Anne Strainchamps:

Good.

Steve:

Hi.

Clare Dolan:

There you are.

Anne Strainchamps:

Coming up, Steve and I take a trip to the Museum of Everyday Life. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps:

Angelo, at the beginning of this hour, remember you took us to the House on the Rock?

Angelo Bautista:

Yeah. Alex Jordan's magnum opus of fantastically pointless stuff. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps:

So I wanted to tell you about a place Steve and I went. It's a place I would consider the exact opposite, The Museum of Everyday Life.

Angelo Bautista:

The Museum of Everyday Life. How is it different?

Anne Strainchamps:

Okay, so from what you told me, the House on the Rock is like this explosion of extraordinary things. And The Museum of Everyday Life is this lovingly curated collection of completely ordinary things like pencils, matches, locks and keys.

Angelo Bautista:

So where is this place?

Anne Strainchamps:

It's in a barn in Glover, Vermont, which is way up in the Northeast kingdom. And the curator of this place is Clare Dolan. She's an ICU nurse by day and the Chief Operating Philosopher of this museum. She gave us a tour.

Clare Dolan:

So here we are opening the doors. There's some warning signs. Please no smoking, no bare feet and enter at your own risk. Thank you. That's an important sign. Over on this wall is a lot of the greatest hits from our toothbrush exhibit. Here on this wall, this is the dust exhibit-

Steve Paulson:

Okay, wait. I have to look at it. This sort of just blows my mind that you can do a whole exhibit on a dust.

Clare Dolan:

Yeah. Well, some people say it was our best one. I have to say it was visionary because it's so ubiquitous and ordinary. Nobody lives without dust. So what are some of the objects here? This is a beauty. This is a display of tone balls. Tome balls are accumulations of dust and hair and other kinds of particles that build up in stringed instruments like violins and guitars.

Steve Paulson:

Great. So where would the tone balls... where in the instrument do they collect?

Clare Dolan:

You know how violins and guitars have a hollow body? You look through the circle in the middle of a guitar and you can see in there, dust builds up in there. And the vibrations of the strings causes the dust to collect into these little balls. Now some musicians prefer to leave the tone balls in place because they feel that they are part of what gives a particular instrument its special sound, and-

Anne Strainchamps:

So people just sent you dust.

Clare Dolan:

Yeah. Yeah. That's part of how it works. I send out a call for submissions. Usually on Valentine's day, I put out a call, I announce what it is and that's how it starts.

Steve Paulson:

What strikes me about the whole concept of this museum is it's totally the opposite of the conventional museum which displays exotic objects, right?

Clare Dolan:

Right. That's the idea. Yeah, it seems important to me. I think the exotic and the expensive or rare or precious, we venerate those kinds of objects just the same way we venerate celebrity and we're obsessed with what famous people do and think, but I feel like it's super important to make a place for us. We're not celebrities and I don't have anything precious in my house at all, but our life stories and our connections to our ordinary objects are totally worthy of a museum, so had to make one.

Anne Strainchamps:

Some objects are a little gruesome. What is the toothbrush with the hair growing out of it?

Clare Dolan:

Oh yeah. This is actually a piece of art that was made in response to the call for toothbrushes. One of them has hair instead of bristles, human hair. And the other one has little tiny teeth instead of bristles.

Steve Paulson:

Can I just say this is my nightmare of what a toothbrush would be?

Clare Dolan:

It is. I mean, it's quite startling. It also really makes you think about like what is a toothbrush? Yeah. Let's see. This is one of the crown jewels of our permanent collection, I think. This is the match stick violin. It was made by a person who was in prison. He was a bluegrass musician and he was really missing his instruments. And he had time in the workshop, and he started to create musical instruments from matches. And he stained them with coffee to make the beautiful color. And then the strange... I don't even know what to call it. The strange occurrence that happened was when we had the match exhibit that year, my house burned down.

Steve Paulson:

Oh my God.

Clare Dolan:

It was a few days after New Year's and I think it was -25 or something out, super cold. We have a wonderful, amazing volunteer fire department. They came here in response to my call. When it started out, it was just warmth in the wall and a tinkling in there, so I thought, "Oh, there's little fire in there." And just a little bit of smoke. And they came very quickly, but their pump froze because it was so cold out and they had trouble getting the water going. Anyway, fire went out of control, house burned down, but when I was sifting through the rubble to sort of pull out what I was salvageable, a big beam had fallen on top of this violin case and somehow protected it. And the violin inside was perfectly preserved.

Steve Paulson:

The serendipity of the violin case being made of matchsticks had survived in the fire.

Clare Dolan:

And my house burning down the year that I had the exhibit on matches in the barn.

Anne Strainchamps:

I can only imagine what it must have been like for somebody as sensitive to objects as you are to lose all your objects in your life.

Clare Dolan:

Yeah. It was an interesting experience. When the fire started, I thought, "Oh, maybe there'll be smoke damage. I better grab a few things that I don't want to get damaged." So I took my accordion, I took my boxes of old photographs, and I took my computer. So I did have that moment that everyone asks, "If you are ever in a fire and you could grab three things, what would they be?" I knew what they were and I picked the right ones. And the great thing about the fire also is it really teaches you what is the most meaningful thing? There were a few things that for years afterwards I'd reach for, or I'd say, "Oh, I have to go get that. Oh, I don't have it anymore."

Steve Paulson:

Well, it raises all kinds of questions about how attached we become to our objects. And I know from experience, I have this particular comb that I bought at a garage sale for $5. And it's like one of my most precious objects that I own and I've had it for 15 years.

Clare Dolan:

Well, if you think about it, those objects carry in them a record of your life, the experience of your relationship with that thing like an old wallet that you open and close, it gets creased and cracked every time from opening and closing. And so its body like the body of the object starts to change in response to its relationship with you. And that's part of what I find so moving about objects, it's the way that they hold pieces of us inside themselves.

Steve Paulson:

Yeah. Can we see your knot?

Clare Dolan:

Yes. Sorry.

Steve Paulson:

I'm sorry, I don't mean to-

Anne Strainchamps:

Don't break anything.

Clare Dolan:

I know you get... It's easy to do.

Steve Paulson:

Can I just ask a basic question?

Clare Dolan:

Yeah.

Steve Paulson:

Why knots?

Clare Dolan:

Why not? Well, the knot, it seems so appropriate to the present time to me. What is a knot? We speak in terms of knots when we talk about problems, a knotty problem, or the knot we have in our stomach when we are nervous about something or feel dread. In the spring, the COVID thing was blowing up, the impeachment was happening and now we have the uprisings in the streets. It's just seems like, "Whoa, what could be more apt?"

Steve Paulson:

Yeah.

Clare Dolan:

Here's the display. This is a complicated one, but I think probably important that we talk about it. This is the news. It was found by a neighbor of mine in a estate sale or a yard sale kind of situation and he brought it over. And it's hard to know how to display an object like this. You don't want to put it in its normal hanging position, but it's also incredibly important if you're going to talk about a knot. I mean, this is one of the most recognizable knots there is. Most of us can't tell a bow line from a clove hitch, but we all know what this knot is. And so it's important to talk about the history of its role in the murder of Black Americans and the recent efforts to dismantle all that it's come to stand for.

Steve Paulson:

Do you feel like you can to some degree tell our history through knots?

Clare Dolan:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean a knot is one of the oldest technologies. The knot's right up there with fire and the wheel, and it's basically the thing that enabled us as humans to make compound objects. How did you tie the arrowhead to the spear? How did you lash Palm leaves together to make the roof? A knot affords so many things to people. You can tie, hold, lash, bind. It's one of those things.

Steve Paulson:

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps:

I'm just so curious about your own personal life with objects. I can't imagine that creating this museum has not changed the way you think about, maybe interact with personal life stuff.

Clare Dolan:

I've learned a lot, but in my personal life, I was always like a dull person and a collecty person. When I was a kid I collected little pebbles, bigger pebbles, tiny mice figurines, just sort of like the weirdest things. And I'm a kook. I'm one of those people who's just deeply in touch with the inherent presence that sits inside of objects. I talk to things like my chair, "Thanks chair." I'm kooky. But I think that there is a certain amount of universality to it. And that's because so many people can really be in touch with that feeling too, that there's a spirit and there's a presence inside a lot of objects and you feel it.

Anne Strainchamps:

My last question, what do you ask of or look for in the objects you allow to be part of your life?

Clare Dolan:

Wow, that's a great... Nobody's ever asked me that before. I know I get plenty of things at the store all the time that I need that are ugly and unmeaningful and that eventually are going to wear out and I'll get rid of them without a second thought. In this life it's really hard to be [inaudible 00:50:01] curator of everything. I think you can do that if you have the luxury, but I don't.

Anne Strainchamps:

Clare Dolan is the founder, curator and chief operating philosopher of the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont. We posted pictures of our trip on our website, so take a look. It's at ttbook.org. Thanks for joining us for this edition of To The Best Of Our Knowledge. Angelo Bautista produced it with help from Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

Speaker 13:

PRX.

Last modified: 
November 16, 2020