Tuesday, February 27, 2007

From Ottawa: Jo's Journal

Hi from Jo, the non-resident member of Halifax Compacters, checking in from the nation’s capital with some observations from my journal.

I’ve been patting myself on the back all month, telling folks I’ve bought nothing new in January or February, except a 9-V battery for my smoke alarm (surely on the exempt list), so I’ve been clean for all of 2007.

But I was challenged a few days ago, so I’ve been pouring over my journal and scrutinizing receipts (I keep everything) so I could “prove it,” if only to myself. I zipped through the pile, smirking, no problem (grocery store, bakery, post office, manicure, haircut, prescription, fuel, oil change, theatre tickets, hotel, restaurants – but then – a bottle of Scotch. In or out? Can I justify that under food? Health and safety? Sanity?

Then in January, the new windshield wipers and shovel at Canadian Tire. My old wipers were dangerously close to giving out completely, and the shovel was for my car emergency kit, so those were safety issues for me.

Oh lordy – I had forgotten all about the new winter wardrobe I outfitted myself with when I was home at Christmas time. Forty bucks at Frenchy’s, so I’m off the hook on that one too.

One other questionable item was a roll of newsprint for packing (I’m involved in a major house/office move) that I picked up at the mover’s while I was buying used packing boxes. But didn’t I need that? By the way, I bought only a handful of boxes, as I’ve had friends-with-offices saving photocopy paper boxes, and I discovered (when buying the Scotch) that the liquor store is delighted to get boxes taken off its hands.

So am I upholding the family tradition of purity, like my son Kevin, and my daughter-in-law Lezlie (until she blew it with the stickers), who are also Halifax Compacters, or not?

Like Lezlie (until the sticker incident), I expected the challenge of buying nothing new would be, well, more challenging. But I don’t buy much new anyway, so maybe I’m not really starting from zero. And I don’t buy much new because I hate shopping, at least in the places where one buys new things, amid throngs of people buying new things. Junk shops, pawn shops, Frenchy’s, Value Village are more to my liking, and besides, after I get through with the manicures, restaurants, tickets, and the Scotch, there’s no money left for new stuff anyway.

Before I start sounding too sanctimonious I should also confess that I already had stuff – bought last year – that let me off the hook in making a "don’t buy new" decision. I give gifts to several family members whose birthdays are in January and February, and since I was driving to the Maritimes for Christmas, I took the gifts with me, where they remained tucked away until the birthdays. Interestingly, though, more than half of the gifts were OK anyway – second hand items, family treasures and gift certificates for experiences, rather than things (a ski pass, dinner theatre).

One challenge I faced last week was a gift for my 6-year old grandson Alex’s upcoming birthday. I had to wrack my brain a bit, but an almost-new board game from a second-hand store and an amusement park pass saved the day. But that’s the thing – I had to really think about what to give him. Buying something new off his wish list would have been the quick and easy thing to do.

Apart from forcing me to make thoughtful decisions (the need vs. want debate), another unexpected effect of the compacters’ challenge is what goes through my head when making an on-the-OK-list purchase. For example: a bottle of liquid dishwashing detergent lasts me six or eight months (because of the restaurants, etc, above), and I was almost out the last time I went to the grocery store. I fired a bottle of my usual brand into the cart, and got halfway down the aisle before I had second thoughts. I went back and looked more carefully at the offerings, and this time, I chose the bottle (at twice the price) of the non-petroleum-based product. But I ended up putting that back on the shelf too; then I called Kevin and e-mailed Lezlie, to get their advice on an alternative. At Kevin’s suggestion (if I had to have dishwashing soap), I went down the block to my neighbourhood green/organic shop and got my bottle refilled with non-petroleum stuff from the bulk barrel.

Then there were the shoelaces. The plastic end piece was missing from one of my winter boot laces – it’s been gone for a couple of years, and every time I tie up the fraying lace, I think: “Drat, I forgot to buy new boot laces.” But since shoelaces aren’t on the OK list, I put the word out that I was looking for a pair of used laces. No one had any, but I got several suggestions on how to fix the old lace. And then the light went on. Why on earth would I buy a pair of new laces just because the end of one (otherwise perfectly fine) lace was scraggly? So I fixed the lace by applying a dab of glue to the end, the adhesive I use for bookbinding, because it’s permanent and dries clear. Now I’ve got a neutral pH archival quality bootlace.

Another fallout of the exercise is thinking, thinking, thinking about the stuff I already have. Why do I have all this stuff? Where did it come from? Am I using it? Is it giving me pleasure? And finally, what are my kids going to do with it when I’m gone? This is likely a function of age, combined with my upcoming move to a smaller place, but it adds another twist to the compacters’ challenge.

On the one hand, there is a tremendous appeal to living a more simple, uncluttered life, especially since I’m on the road a lot, and like to travel light, at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, I’m facing significant lifestyle changes, the most painful of which are parting with hundreds of my books, and foregoing the pleasure of providing a guest nook for my dear ones when they visit.

But I’ve discovered another pleasure – freecycling – can bingo be far behind? Among all that stuff I have weighing me down are bits and pieces that someone else needs – a dimmer switch, a few sheets of stickers, a radio, a puzzle – and stuff from someone else’s ubiquitous junk pile is filling my needs – and neither one of us is buying anything new. And what satisfaction to pass my books on to other avid readers, my portable crib to expectant grandparents, my second bed to a student sleeping on a piece of foam on the floor. And on top of that, every piece that is freecycled out my door is one less thing the paid-by-the-hour movers will be carting around.

And one last observation – buying nothing new takes time. Thinking, planning, debating (I burned at least half a day on the dishwashing soap), digging through stuff, picking up, delivering, writing. Which is, perhaps, why so many of us buy new to begin with. It’s often faster, more convenient, and sometimes even less expensive, and buying that extra bit of extra time appeals to even the greenest of the non-consumers among us.

So while the actual buying nothing new may be less difficult than I anticipated, thinking through all this other stuff is what I find challenging at the moment – but I’ll get through – no problem – as long as I keep Scotch on the OK list.

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