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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Living simply: it sounds so…simple – THIS IS NOT A TEST #8 (transcript)

Published February 14, 2015 [Podcast link]

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I watched a video on YouTube today about podcasting, you know – how to be an awesome podcaster. Because I don’t want to be a slouch, right? I’m new to this whole scene, and here you are giving me your time so I want to give you something of quality in return. Anyway, it was a guy named Cliff Ravenscraft talking to an audience somewhere, and he said one of the most important things to do is focus your topic. Don’t do something general, be very specific and then it’s easy to blow up and become the world’s most incredible podcasty type person. Don’t talk about sports, he said, talk about football. And don’t just talk about football, talk about University of Tennessee football! Ha ha – jesus christ.

I’m sure Cliff knows what he’s talking about, and I understand what he’s saying, but I’ll be damned if I can focus on a topic. I could come on here and talk about Bukowski every week, or electric guitars maybe. Those are two things I know something about. Maybe the only two things. But then who the hell would want to hear that? I wouldn’t want to listen to me doing that and I’m me!

If I wanted to apply that formula I’d have to change this up to talk about just books or just movies or just art or just culture or just truth and I wouldn’t be able to ramble about seagulls or chocolate Easter bunnies or my dentist, Dr. Mak. And now that I list off all the things that this podcast is supposed to be about, I realize I haven’t even really stuck to that. So I guess this is what you get. It will be a little random and I’ll never be the world’s most incredible podcasty type person. Like right now I’m about to talk about something that isn’t books or art…I guess technically it’s culture. Get to it already mjp!

I’m a renter. I’ve always been a renter and I like being a renter. There are a few good reasons to rent, first, you can usually live in a nicer place than you could afford to buy. I don’t really care that much about the place I live in, but there’s also a girl and a dog here to consider, and they need certain things. I pay a lot of money for rent, but so does everyone else in Los Angeles. I know a lot of you are thinking it’s foolish to give that money away to someone. But even though the rent is a lot of money, for what I’m paying here I couldn’t buy a house in Los Angeles. Well, I probably could, but it would be a crumbly little shack with bars on all the windows in a sketchy neighborhood.

But the second, and more important reason that renting is awesome is you don’t have to fix anything you don’t want to fix. I’m a naturally fixie type, so I do fix a lot of little things here and there, but nothing major. If the roof is leaking or a fence needs to be rebuilt, I just tell the landlord and she has to take care of it. And usually that works well, but sometimes, not so well. Like right now, we’ve been waiting five or six weeks to get the heater fixed. I know if you don’t live here you don’t think it gets cold in Los Angeles, but it does. And it’s been one of the coldest winters in a long time. But because the landlord is a tightwad who can’t buy a light bulb without getting half a dozen different estimates, we have to sit here freezing.

Okay, that’s not completely true. We know how to coax the heater into working, usually, but if it doesn’t want to come on, it won’t. And if it’s been on for half an hour and it feels like shutting off, it will. So it’s a pain in the ass. Not to mention the only way to get to the heater – which is under the house – is through the pantry. And since guys have been in and out trying to fix it, everything that usually sits in the pantry, on top of the trapdoor to the heater, is in the kitchen. Here, all around me. Just sitting here every day, mocking me and saying, “You paid that woman over $200,000 for the privilege of living in this place, but you can’t get her to fix the heat. Ha ha ha ha.”

Yes, a little more than 200 grand over the past 7 years and 4 months. Now you can go do the math and know how much our rent is. I don’t begrudge her that money, and I don’t even really think about it as one big chunk of 200 grand, not really. I only figured it out because I’m irritated that I have to walk around a bunch of brooms and mops and an ironing board and the 20 other things that I have to walk around every day because they can’t be put back where they belong.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about today, and that is having way too much stuff. Or to put it more elegantly, how does one simplify? There’s stuff everywhere in this house. I mean there’s something on every level surface. And not just small things. We have six guitars, three amplifiers, a keyboard, a zither and a full drum set. We have three overflowing six foot tall bookcases, three overflowing six foot tall CD storage things, two couches, 5,000 pieces of art, 50 electronic boxes that do various shit, and on and on it goes.

Every now and then I decide to lighten the load and get rid of some things, so for a while I’ll drop a few items onto eBay every weekend, then after I get rid of the really easy stuff I start to walk around the house saying, “okay, what’s next? who’s next out the door!” and everything I pick up I think, “Hmm, maybe not that.” or “No, I need that.” It’s ridiculous. Do two people who aren’t playing in a band need six guitars? Do I need to keep that second turntable in the music room? It’s not a even a good turntable, it’s a plastic piece of shit Sony thing that I got for free. But there it sits. It all seems a little insane to me.

Like everyone else, when I was in my early 20s I barely had anything in my apartment. But even then, sometimes I’d be leaving the building and I’d think, “You know, it would be okay with me if the place burned down or exploded or fell into a giant sinkhole and took all my stuff with it.” When I came out here to California pretty much everything I owned fit into a third of the van we came out here in. Even after I was here for a few years, everything fit into my crappy little banana yellow 77 Honda Civic. And I always thought, “this is the way to do it man, everything should fit into your car. I’m always going to live like this!” But if you find yourself in the same place for more than six months the shit just starts to accumulate. Where did that aquarium come from? What am I going to do with these books that don’t fit on the bookshelf? How did I end up with fifteen forks?! I live by myself!

And the next thing you know it takes a big rental truck to move all of your shit, then the next thing you know after that, it takes two trucks and four guys who you have to pay to move all your shit. Where does it end? I’m not springing for that third truck next time. Forget it. But at least we haven’t resorted to paying for a storage locker. It used to be that those self storage places were unusual, and people used them when they got shipped overseas to shoot at people, or got laid off from their job and had to live on the couches of friends and relatives for a while. Now they are everywhere and everyone has one. or two. But I’m not sure why we need to hold on to things that we can’t even see. Things that we have to make a special trip to go visit, and we never even visit. Unless we need to jam more shit into the locker.

When I think about what I really need just to get along and survive and live, it isn’t much. But just surviving isn’t any fun. I mean, one day I’m certainly going to need that complete set of Monty Python DVDs that we’ve never watched, and that second set of dishes, the ones on the high shelves you can’t reach without standing on a chair – you never know when they’ll come in handy. And the pants that don’t quite fit right or the 30 or 40 black t shirts that I never wear anymore? Well, those are perfectly good t shirts, man. What the hell?

No, I don’t need any of this stuff. So why can’t I get rid of it? Why – even when I try, and do get rid of things – does it seem like I still have just as much stuff?

I mentioned eBay, and I love selling stuff there. It’s a huge audience of potential buyers, and if two or more people really want something you’re selling they can bid each other past a reasonable price and you make out like a proverbial bandit. It’s great when those “You got paid” emails come in. Yeah, I love selling things on eBay, it’s just the stuff that happens after you get the money that I don’t like. I don’t like boxing things, I really don’t like going to the post office. I don’t like paying a fee to eBay – and another fee to PayPal, which is the same company – for the privilege. It would be easy if I didn’t care and could just throw things into boxes, slap on a piece of tape and call it a day, but I can’t. I have to pack everything – even the least fragile things – like they are going to Antarctica on a merchant marine ship and being hauled by donkeys for the last few miles. When it’s all said and done if I sell something for $20 on eBay, everything else involved in the whole transaction isn’t worth it to me.

But the alternative – a yard sale – is even worse. Getting up at the crack of dawn and lugging your unwanted shit out to the dewy driveway, hanging up signs around town, it’s inhuman. Or if you advertise the sale, which you almost have to, the people who show up an hour before the start time and paw through things as you’re trying to set up…”No, not now, 9 o’clock!” “I’m just looking!” Stand over there on the sidewalk and look please.” The people…listen, I like people, I really do. In general. I like the idea of people. It’s just some of them…well, it’s a lot of them, that make me wonder. People steal from yard sales, did you know that? And when you see it happening you have to stop and consider, “is that even worth going after? I was going to sell it for a dollar.” But then you think, oh hell no, you’re not going to just walk away with that!

Or the guy who flips through the DVDs or CDs saying, “Have it, have it, have it…how much for this one?” “like the sign says, $3 each.” “I’ll give you 75 cents.” They always want to give you less, when you’re already giving the shit away. Does paying a quarter for that 50 cent item really make you feel like you’re winning? Is 5 dollars for that $80 pair of shoes really such a bad deal that you have to ask if I’ll take 3? It’s like putting a plate of meat out in the middle of a pack of hungry dogs and trying to get them to take turns eating. no. no yard sales.

So there’s my dilemma. I want to get rid of things but I can’t be bothered with the technicalities of getting rid of them. And really, it’s not even that. I mean, if I sell my little bust of Mozart with the Swiss music box in it that plays a scrap of one of his minuets for $5 aren’t I going to miss it? It doesn’t even look like him, it looks like Anderson Cooper wearing a fancy shirt! Why do I have that thing? What’s wrong with me? My possessions are possessing me, and I can’t make them stop.

Most of the houses I’ve lived in here in Los Angeles were built in the 1920s. The houses were smaller then, and the closets were much smaller. Maybe that’s part of it. In a modern house or apartment you can stash a lot of crap in closets, but in these older joints, everything is out in your face all the time. I’m trying to think of some fundamental way that we’ve changed as humans in the past hundred years, why a modern person needs five times more closet space than someone in the first part of the 20th century, but I can’t. We just have more shit.

I know a lot of the change came about when credit cards for the masses were introduced into our bloodstreams in the 1960s. In the 20s if you didn’t have money for a big radio or 20 extra spoons, you just didn’t get them. People still borrowed money and took out loans, but only for important things. But once we got our hands on credit cards, we started buying less important things, and people started “competing” with their neighbors. “Keeping up with the Joneses” and all that. Neighbors have a new refrigerator? Suddenly your old refrigerator looks sad and useless. And the companies that made those appliances weren’t idiots, so they started to change styles more often, to pressure people to keep up and be modern. Just like that iPhone in your pocket. Not terribly different from the one you had two models ago, but it’s the new one, so you have it.

And now that credit cards are falling out of every tree you walk past, we can get even more unimportant things, so we do. We expand our need to absorb more junk. We expand to absorb. It’s like getting a raise at your job, and you think, woo, easy street man, an extra five grand a year! And a year goes by and you’re still just as broke and stupid as ever. Where did that five grand go? You expanded to absorb it, baby. Congratulations.

So really it’s all voluntary, and this anguish that I constantly feel over having too much stuff is my own fault. I don’t know what it means. If I got rid of all my stuff I’d probably just grow a new anguish over something else. I’d spend all day wondering if I should have kept the big plastic bags full of old blankets and pillows, because you know, we might have to sleep six or seven people in here one night – then what am I going to do? And that box of springs – you never know when you might need a spring. To fix something with a broken spring in it! Sure.

I suppose we’ve come to believe that our possessions, the stuff we keep around us, defines us. It tells the world who we are. But what does that say about those people back in the 20s and 30s who could fit all of their clothes into these small closets, and who didn’t have all the junk surrounding them to define them? Were they better than us? Did they have a more clear and definite sense of self? I don’t know. I know they were tough, and there’s probably a reason they’re called “the greatest generation.”

Well, that’s enough to chew on for now. If you need a plastic turntable or a Mozart music box or two thirds of a box of number 11 envelopes, let me know. And if you’re one of those people who only have a few possessions and live in one of those tiny houses built on top of a 14 foot trailer and you only use solar power and drink rainwater…don’t leave a comment. I really can’t deal with your grooviness. … And shave off that mustache already. It’s 2015, not 1840.

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