Outfitting My Room: Bargain Shopping for Anti-Consumerists

The story of the last two months has been one of finding places for things.  It started when I began packing to leave Oxford, attempting to cajole my worldly possessions into fitting in two duffel bags.  Looking into the closets and storage spaces of my college-owned graduate house, I realized that many international students had faced a similar challenge—and simply left their things behind.  I could have left the closets for future archaeologists to excavate, but when Jackie started cleaning them, I set about finding homes other than the waste bin for ancient printers, leftover crutches, and fifty-odd medals that were supposed to be distributed at the 2004 British University Athletics Championship.

Home presented its own set of challenges for my commitment to non-wasting.  When we moved to Oregon my junior year, my parents—perhaps hoping to lessen the trauma of leaving my childhood home—let me let me pack up my entire room, right down to the most useless of knick-knacks.  This summer, however, the day of reckoning had come, and I opened up those boxes—some of which were, literally, labeled “Random Crap I Don’t Have the Heart to Throw Out.”  What place other than the landfill, I wondered, is a good home for 4th Place Little League Trophies?  And what should happen to stuffed animals for which I can’t even remember the names anymore?

After the unfortunate revelation that I had not just two duffel bags of stuff, but actually boxes and boxes of it, I committed myself to starting my life in Berkeley on an anti-consumerist note.  To be fair, Berkeley makes it easy.  Even in the ritziest neighborhoods through which I’ve walked, every block or two there is a couch, box of books, or appliance set out on the curb for the taking.  I found my desk at Urban Ore, a waystation for furniture in transit from derelict low-income housing to the landfill.  My bed—which has actual springs from the 19th century—I acquired from a friend clearing out his cabin.  I rounded it out with a bike unearthed from a pile of rusting frames at a shop that refurbishes abandoned cycles.  All told, I set myself up for $75 and, more importantly, never stepped foot inside IKEA.

It feels good to look around my eclectically decorated but ethically consistent bedroom and realize that I have, in a small but significant way, re-engaged with the anti-wasting and anti-consuming ethics I picked up through my time with the freegans in New York.  But—since to study sociology is to live in a constant state of self-examination—I can’t help but apply a bit of theory to reality.  Particular, I am reminded of sociologist Georg Simmel, who theorized the personality types revealed by certain orientations towards money.  Superficially, he noted, “misers” and “spendthrifts” have the exact opposite attitude towards money: one throws it away flippantly, and the other hoards it.  But in the end, both wind up with a similar obsession—each makes money central to his or her life and identity, whether or not the aim is to keep it or to spend it.

There is a certain fetishism in the anti-consumerist ethos, albeit the exact opposite of the kind identified by Marx: rather than ignore where our commodities come from, we obsess about their origins.  Anti-consumerism is supposed to be about realizing that we don’t need the things that advertisers tell us we do.  Yet, not-buying is less about not-having than is simply not-spending.  By searching through flea markets and pouring over Freecycle ads, we become,in a sense, bargain shoppers with a price point of $0.

I worry because, ultimately, the time I spend worrying about what I am consuming and how to consume it is a distraction from doing something proactive, productive, and pro-social.  And so, in the future, I think the solution may occasionally have to be just to plunk down some money, push all those useable but discarded items out of my mind, and actually go and try to change something.

UAW Local 2865

Here’s a quick primer on how the University of California (and California State University) is completely fucked.  This year’s state budget is cutting $650 million from a system already emaciated from a 20% cut last year, with a bonus $200 million in cuts if revenues come short of projections.  Tuition has risen 67% for residents in the last five years, but it hasn’t been enough to prevent reductions in course offerings as well as the axing of various support services.  Although this agenda of privatization started long before the present economic downturn, the current rhetoric of austerity and “shared” sacrifice is providing good cover for the destruction of the world’s finest public universities.

I knew all this before I came here.  In fact, at other schools I had been warned that the Berkeley was “on the border of collapse” by some professors with ulterior motives.  What I have seen so far seems to debunk that claim: by and large, the university appears to be educating students and conducting research, if not undeterred, at least undaunted.  Still, though, the cuts are visible.  The department sent out an e-mail today noting that, because they have been forced to cut classes, there won’t be enough graduate teaching positions for all who need them.  And on our library tour, our guide informed us that it was still up-in-the-air as to whether the libraries would be open on Saturdays (though, here the cuts might be a blessing in disguise).

This is all pretty real, you might say, given that I have tethered my future livelihood to the continued existence of institutions of higher learning.  And so, today, I did what millions before me have done in the face of an assault on their livelihoods: I joined a union.

I would love to hear the story of how this came to pass, but Berkeley graduate students are represented by the United Auto Workers (yes—the guys from Detroit).  Admittedly, I have my doubts about the efficacy of what the UAW is trying to do.  Given that the root of the problem is California taxpayers who have decided that education should not be a public good, feuding with the university administration—who probably don’t much like the cuts either—over the size of our medical insurance co-pays feels a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  It doesn’t help that certain unions, like that for California prison guards, are part of the problem.  But, to be honest, I didn’t just join the union to be an anti-neo-liberal activist.

Ever since I decided to pursue a career in academia, I’ve been acutely attuned to how little value most people place on my chosen field and profession.  I see this not just at the macro level of politicians deriding intellectuals and cutting higher education budgets, but also on a more quotidian scale.  It’s evident in constant questions about “What are you ever going to do with that?” and casual remarks about how I am putting of the “real world” for another six years.  I’m not so self-absorbed as to equate this with true persecution.  Rather, it has all simply added up to the realization that most people don’t quite get the point of studying sociology.

And that’s why I love being in a union.  I am a worker.  I have moved on from the passive consumption of being a student to the active production of new knowledge.  What I produce is easily as real and valuable as the spreadsheets of an investment banker or power point slides of a management consultant, even if I am not renumerated like them.  While I still have grandiose aspirations for what I will eventually do with my degree, for the time being, what I really want people to acknowledge is the simple fact that I have a job.  And how can anyone deny it, when I’m represented by UAW, the granddaddy of unions?

There is power in a union.

De(T)ox the Punx

Two days ago, my parents and I loaded up the family Toyota.  Together with a book-on-tape and my Mom’s heavily-Bruce-Springsteen-centric CD collection, we embarked on a road trip through the desolation of Middle America.  Our destination was a new university, where in just a week I will start the Next Big Phase of my life, unsure of the ultimate outcome.  In a way, I could have been eighteen again.

Except not really.  Unlike when I was eighteen, there was no all-night vigil with friends before I left, no tears from my parents at our final destination, and—for me—no ulcer of nervousness and trepidation growing in my stomach with every mile we drove.  Despite the endless self-deprecating jokes I make about the fact that I am still going to school, I am not the shit-scared adolescent I was when I first went to Princeton—or even the person I was when I left for Oxford.  Moving to Berkeley, so far, feels less like a dramatic life change and more of a logical next step, a big shift in location but only a small one in terms of goals, lifestyle, and mindset.

What I am getting at is that I think my life is about to get very boring.  Now, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, just an inevitable byproduct of growing up.  When I look back at the last two years, spent contracting rare internal diseases in Uganda, running around the Amazon, and trying to make sense of a fascinating island in the Atlantic, I realize that I’ve been fed some pretty excellent material for blogging—whether or not I’ve always capitalized on it.

By comparison, Berkeley feels very familiar.  For all the talk of the “People’s Republic of Berkeley”, with it’s cooperative vegan/halal burrito joints and nuclear free zones, I am nonetheless struck by how American it is.  This blog, then, has outlived it’s ostensible purpose of documenting my wide-eyed observations of the Misty Kingdom and sharing the unique experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have.  Without the literary crutch of Oxford, blogging already feels a bit (more) like self-absorbed naval-gazing.

This does not mean I’m done with this blog.  I regret the periods of my life where I didn’t keep a journal, and love looking back and laughing at the silly nonsense that used to fill my brain.  I’m sure that someday, future-me will want to humor himself at the expense of current-me, and for that reason alone, I’ll keep writing.  But for those of you who are just reading in the hopes that I will soon report that, once again, I have maggots living inside of me which need to be removed in a one-room clinic in Masaka, it might be time for a purge of your Google Reader Blogroll.

Anglophile

It’s mid-summer cleaning time.  As I pack myself up for a very permanent-feeling move to California, I’m purging myself of old books and clothes and knickknacks and CDs, hopelessly attempting to maintain the myth that I still maintain the student ideal of a life that fits into two duffel bags.  Cleaning has taken a digital form, too, as I attempt to squeeze an extra year out of a laptop that has seen one-too-many tours of duty in the developing world.

Last night I was deleting old photos, working forwards from the appearance of digital cameras among my peer group—circa 2004.  I reached the folder containing my early photos of Oxford, taken during that first term in 2009 when I felt the need to document every remotely gothic-looking building I saw, which, in Oxford, meant pretty much everything.  Maybe it’s because I am back in the town where I grew up—to me, the most comfortable and familiar place in the world—but those photos already feel incredibly distant, just one week after I have left England.  I almost had to pinch myself: yes, really, I lived in England for two years.  No, seriously, I went to Oxford.  Me.

I sit down to write this hoping that a bit of detachment will help me articulate something I have wanted to write for some time, but never quite felt able to capture.  As I returned from my jaunt around Europe, and confronted that sad finality of leaving, I was overwhelmed by a simple sentiment: I absolutely love England (okay, Wales, you can be part of this too).  While the whole business about the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. may be a bit of a wash, I know that, for me, I will always feel a strong connection to the place, even as I acknowledge that I will probably never again call it home.  I am, you might say, a consummate Anglophile.

At the same time, however, my time on the continent reminded me of why finding quick explanations for my chronic and incurable Anglophilia is difficult.  England doesn’t fare particularly well on the generic metrics by which American tourists judge countries.  Things aren’t as efficient in the U.K. as in Germany, and—I’m afraid to say, after some rigorous experimentation in the last two weeks—they have better beer too.  I haven’t been to Italy, but I’m told it tops England in one of its own country’s biggest selling points: history and old buildings.  The night life is better in Spain, and the food superior in France—unless you’re vegetarian, in which case, curry saves the day.  But that’s Indian, anyway.

Many of the Americans I met during my time at Oxford never could seem to get past these comparisons.  Even people for whom I had a great deal of respect often could not say much more about the country in which they were temporary residents other than that it was crowded, rainy, and bureaucratic.  Of course, I’d like to think that I have more than such a superficial take on this place, but that doesn’t make it any easier to explain what I like about it.

For every positive stereotype I can conjure, there’s a quick counter-example.  Yes, I suppose I’ve encountered the classic plucky English demeanor that insists that, with appropriate quantities of tea, any obstacle can be overcome—but thinking of the irrepressible rudeness of the Gloucester Green bus-ticket salesmen reminds me that it’s not universal.  Claiming that I love England for the quaintness and antiquity of Oxford seems dishonest when I think of every visit to multi-cultural London, or even my most recent walk down Cowley Road.  And while I’d still probably prefer a Tory government to a Republican one, the recent phone-hacking scandal has thoroughly dispelled any illusions I might have held about the British political system.  Socialist utopia, England—like the rest of Europe—is not.  Just ask the people rioting in London.

When I look back on it, though, the reasons I can offer for my all-consuming Anglophilia—quickly becoming Anglo-nostalgia—are a bit like my photos: disjointed and disconnected.  It’s a series of mental snapshots that are neither truly representative of England nor, in my mind, capable of being disconnected from it.  It’s discussions of everything ranging from ecological Marxism to the latest antics of the boat club, held in pubs which—for reasons ineffable—have always felt a far cheerier environment than American bars could ever be.  It’s the way that sunny days are talked about for weeks thereafter, and how any weather even slightly above-the-rainy-norm must be seized upon and enjoyed with a picnic in Port Meadows.  It’s that night in Cambridge where I realized that going to Grad School doesn’t have to mean growing up.  It’s the brilliance of my English undergraduate friends, whose hours spent making fancy-dress costumes and drafting absurd JCR motions would have, at Princeton, been used panicking about this or that resume-building extracurricular activity.

No, that’s not it, or at least, not all of it.

This time last week, I was closing out my British bank account.  As I drew out my last £9.12—it seems my scholarship calculated the stipend just right—the teller remarked:

“Heading back home to the states?”

“Yes,” I replied, “But I’m sad to be leaving.”

His response seemed almost tailored to be put into a blog post: “I can never figure out why people would say that about leaving England.”

I wish I could have explained it to him, but some things are beyond words.