The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 23, 2009

What’s Clogging Up Your Life? A Story of Unwatched Videos & Other Stuff

The Hours DVD & plastic wrapperThe Hours is one of my favorite movies of all time. My first time seeing it in the theater created such a profound reaction in me that I wept uncontrollably through the entire film. I was still so emotional afterwards, I had to hide in the bathroom stall before facing the world. When people asked me if The Hours was a good movie, I couldn’t even answer. I didn’t know if it was objectively good or merely spoke to me. Spoke? More like reached in and tore my guts out. The second time I saw it, I had almost the same reaction. So when the film came out on DVD, I bought it immediately.

A few nights ago, I thought I would watch The Hours again. I pulled it off the shelf and realized that from the time I purchased it around 2003, I had watched it exactly nonce (which is once minus one.) Zero times. It was still in the plastic packaging! As I pulled off the wrapper, I thought about the idea of possessions, owning things that we put aside and never look at again. I looked at all the books on the shelf I had read exactly once. Or nonce. I looked at the rows of DVDs and video tapes. I looked at the tower of CDs. How often do I ever play these things? Almost never, actually.

DVDs, videotapes and CDs

What use is this stuff?  And what is my relationship to it?  It burdens me, actually.  It fills up our home uselessly.  What’s more, it’s now my responsibility to ensure that it moves on properly.  I have to find other people who might want it.  Or who think they want it and end up cluttering their own lives.  It wastes resources (so much plastic!)  And if no one wants it, what then?  Recycling, which also requires energy.

As I went through the shelf last night, I found even more videos and music CDs still in their plastic wrappers, some of which, like Gorillaz and Tilly & the Wall, I love but already own in mp3 format.

Unopened DVDs, videotapes and CDs

Never opened. Never appreciated. Unvalued, apparently, because the items have been sitting here for years, never watched or played. I’m going to go through and cull this stuff. Try and sell some to second hand stores. Give some away to thrift stores or Freecycle. Because honestly? I only watch three DVDs I’ve purchased: Donnie Darko, Fight Club, and Napoleon Dynamite. And now, maybe The Hours. (I wonder what these movie choices say about me.) Other movies I can rent or borrow, watch once, and give back — keeping the energy of these materials circulating rather than stagnating in my house. (And when I say “energy,” I don’t mean it in any metaphysical way, but simply that energy went into creating this stuff, and that energy ought to move along to stem the consumption of energy for manufacturing new stuff.)

I’m thinking that during the holidays, when gift giving is at its peak, we need to consider the value of the stuff we buy for ourselves and others, and to think realistically about how useful it will be in the long run. Are our gifts of benefit to the recipient or actually burdens to be dealt with? Can we find ways to express our love that don’t involve filling up our lives with more stuff?

Several years go, a friend of mine told me a story about the musician Jane Siberry, of whom she was a big fan. Siberry was holding several salons in various cities where a select number of fans could come and interact with her and each other, discussing philosophical topics, I believe. My friend told me that Siberry had specifically asked them not to bring gifts for her because she considered these objects to be a burden and responsibility. She wanted their company, not their stuff. As I recall, my friend made a mixed tape for Jane, thinking this item would be more personal. And Siberry politely handed it back, asking my friend to enjoy it herself. Or something like that. It heard the story a long time ago, so don’t quote me.

I understand Siberry’s feelings! I don’t want more stuff cluttering up my home any more than she did. The kind of gifts I appreciate are like the gluten-free cookies that my co-worker baked and brought me yesterday. She thought about me and my special needs. And those cookies are not going to end up stashed in a corner of my house! I appreciate dinners with friends. Or hand-made items that remind me of the giver and the time and energy that went into creating them for me, even if it is technically more stuff. I appreciate gifts that can be used up, like soaps or candles or food, as long as they don’t come with packaging that I will have to deal with or chemicals that will stick around in my body after the product is gone.

And of course I appreciate that thought that goes into any gift. I’m not intending to be callous or ungrateful here. But if we spent more time appreciating what we already have than spending energy acquiring more, would our lives be easier and would we feel more free? What do you think?

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Karen Hanrahan
11 years ago

i stopped buying books long ago for this very reason. I love them, love even the look of them all stacked, but why did i have them? After several moves and downsizing …i was paying to move heavy things that were nothing but decoration.

I think asking someone how might i gift you something meaningful might be a nice question to ask. I have an idea for a gift for my son, and want to do something I know he’d like or that i think he’d like. I want to have it still be a surprise, but the truth is …what if that isn’t useful for him??

13 years ago

We do have a very small collection of DVDs my kids watch over and over again. They don’t watch TV and so when we do use the set, it’s for a video or movie. That said, I think long and hard about each DVD I buy. Even if it would be cheaper to buy than rent a few times, I rarely buy because we just don’t need any more stuff in our tiny apartment.

I have a co-worker who buys new releases on DVD instead of taking his family to the theatre when the movie is out because he says it’s cheaper. I love going to the movie theatre and would rather have the experience than a plastic disc collecting dust on my shelf.

I’ve also never had an attachment to books. I don’t like spending money on them, because I rarely reread the same ones over. I always tell people that if I want to visit my books, I can go to the library. :)

axelle fortier
13 years ago

Every time Nicole Kidman appeared onscreen in “The Hours” my mind screamed “Fake nose, fake nose!” and it ruined the movie for me. I just know that nose was silly putty. Plastic.

13 years ago

Weird. I randomly visited your site tonight and saw this post. I once gave Jane Siberry an Eddie Reader cd, saying that her music touched me in a similar way. I asked her to let me know if it would be a burden since she’d said she did not want gifts. I expected her to say no, but she actually graciously accepted it and said that she knew Eddie but had never heard the cd and was looking forward to it. I assume the cd has long been passed on to another happy recipient, as Jane Siberry has now given away nearly everything, including her home, I believe. She moves about with very few items.

I’ve been slowly and steadily unloading possessions over the past 4-5 years, but will likely not go quite as far as Ms. Siberry. I like giving people things to take away from my house and it gives me pleasure to watch unused things leave. I also hate both giving and receiving gifts because I’m “supposed to” and always, always have. I wind up giving away most of the gifts I receive since I find them a burden and I don’t like to have things I won’t use. I much prefer giving a gift if and when I see something that shouts a friend’s name, announcing to me that it should belong to them. That makes me the most happy (and I think it makes for the best gifts). But it’s sometimes challenging to live in a world in which others don’t always understand this. I’ve had a couple of experiences in which people have been resentful when I didn’t enter their “gift-giving” world in the way they thought I should or they’ve used my distaste for gifts as the measure of their value to me rather than noticing the other ways in which I show my care.

13 years ago

Thanks for the post. Lots of stuff!

Am working on reducing the storage space for photographic slides: We are devoted photographers and over the decades have collected our good shots. First, we had them scanned into digital form. Now as we check them and label them, we are removing them from pages and stacking the slides into compact boxes.

Have started the transition from cassette tapes to digital files

Love the idea that fresh toiletries (goos and slime – can you tell I don’t use that stuff) are welcome at the shelters in my town.

I stay inspired to freecycle, send old media cases to GreenDisk, and carry books to the Friends of the Library, by reading this quote

“To keep the atoms in flow, that’s the idea. It is as much to keep the aluminum flowing that I fetch it from the littered woods as for looks or pennies per pound.
Recycling is one of the few completely good things there is, as much for the pure idea of it as the resource sense it makes.”
Robert Michael Pyle in WinterGreen

13 years ago

My husband is a minimalist. Compared to him, I’m a hoarder. We don’t exchange gifts with anyone. For birthdays, I give my kids money, we don’t celebrate Christmas, and for no reason at all I give experiences. Kids eventually understand that you don’t want … whatever it was that they thought you needed.

13 years ago

Great post – good food for thought. Have a wonderful holiday!

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Ah, Clif. I have no idea why people like tchotchkes. I don’t think it’s necessarily a female thing because I hate them. My mom did too. She always called them dust catchers. And her parents didn’t have much in the way of dust catchers either except for my grandfather’s bowling trophies. My dad’s mom, on the other hand, collected all kinds of figurines. And my dad collects family photographs and genealogical information.

I collect my thoughts occasionally. :-)

13 years ago

I have two goals, the second long term and the first for now…

1) don’t have more possessions than you could personally move to an entirely new place in one day.

2) when you die, leave only enough personal stuff that your heirs can lug it home in their cars.

I second what Julia says about the library – a wonderful place where so much is available – books, DVD’s, CD’s. My local library, a short walk away, has a fabulous “for sale room” manned entirely by volunteers where you can buy books for a dollar or two. It is so well maintained that I never find an empty space on the shelves ’cause they are fanatics about restocking.

Ebay is my friend – I’ve unloaded everything from stereo speakers to a motorcycle there. My asking price always starts at 99 cents because I want things to move – out. Stuff never fails to find its value there.

Just think of having all you own on a big sled that you have to pull. Ugh. Travel light through life, mentally and physically. It can’t help but make you smile to have the freedom.

Now here is a question for the fair sex. What is it that is so appealing about tchotchkes? Judy will take me into little shops that are simply stuffed with all kinds of knick-knacks that have no practical value beyond decoration. It is so easy to fill a home with them. What is the appeal? Some might say it makes a place “homey” but others might call it cluttered. At the extreme, Scandinavian homes can look amazingly stark and cold to Americans.

Of course, on the male side, we have a neighbor who built a huge garage and installed lifts. He can get in six cars – three on the ground and three lifted up above them. So there is a collector thing going in all of us…why?

I’ve only bought one movie in my life – Dances With Wolves. Not surprising since I admire the way the Indians could pack up and move in a jiffy. As for music, I transferred my old LP’s to CD’s then never listened to the CD’s!!!

What we all need is the capacity for metacognition – the ability to be aware of our thinking; to think about why we think the way we do. We need to have a tiny Mr. Spock inside that can take us out of our emotional world from time to time to ponder what we do.

13 years ago

I entirely relate – I am constantly evaluating my things to see if I need/use them enough to warrant keeping them. Otherwise I donate them. Please consider giving movies/books to your local public library. I work at a small branch library where dvds have a high circulation, but our budget really limits how many we can add to our collection. Also, I loved The Hours, both the book and the movie, and even cried in front of my class in college when it was shown by my professor. :D

Mary Kay
13 years ago

I agree with your post (accept maybe The Hours thing)! I stopped Christmas gift giving years ago. There’s no pleasure in it for me. Only responsibility. Of course, everyone at work thinks I’m a freak. I agree with Tiffany as well. My mom keeps giving me soap and lotion and it’s the stinky stuff with lots of chemicals. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but…

13 years ago

STUFF is definitely a burden for me. In the process of moving this summer I ripped all of my CDs and any DVD I thought I might want to watch onto an external harddrive and sold/donated all of the discs. Talk about liberating! After that and my first book purge my mom asked me to do the same with her music collection and to help her decide on books to donate. Purging and going Minimalist is contagious, when people saw what a difference it was making for my overall mood and being, they wanted help doing the same…getting out from under all the STUFF cluttering up their lives…

Thanks for this post, I may link to it in an upcoming post of my own!

13 years ago

I can’t tell you how much I identify with your post. I feel like I am swimming in “stuff”. I get overwhelmed trying to purge. My tiny steps are for every item I bring into my house(and I try to bring minimize the amout I do bring in) I have to find new homes for two items. It is a tiny step but atleast the amount of “stuff I own is on a downward trend. Thanks for the post

13 years ago

have you ever been to ? It’s a site where you trade your books with other members by simply mailing one to a person who wants it and earning a credit to spend on a book you want. They have sister sites for cds and dvds.

However, it would up your plastic count. They suggest waterproofing books with saran wrap and using plenty of clear plastic tape : / . And then there’s the printer usage. To send a book you print out a page with the address on it then wrap the book in it to mail it.

I think your post is spot on. I’ve never been one to collect media, but my husband was when I married him. We enjoy his collection, but we don’t add to it. We visit the library regularly and use PBS when we can’t find it local.

13 years ago

I just did a purge myself + came away with enough $$ to buy 2 concert tickets, a programmable thermostat + he rest went into savings. In addition to the stuff we sold, we took 11 bags of clothes to the mission. Funny thing is I never thought I had a lot of stuff until I touched EVERY SINGLE ITEM I OWNED + contemplated it’s worth in my life.

13 years ago

Fabulous post! I personally love movies, books, and DVDs so a dvd or book would be a good gift for me. We put the DVDs in a DVD organizer and then donate the cases to a woman who reuses them for her photography business. I can watch movies over and over again though! And read books over and over again too. When I get tired of my books I freecycle them. A good gift for someone who likes movies but not “stuff” would be a Netflix subscription.

That said I HATE perfumes, most candles, lotions, makeup, pretty hair thingies, and all that froo-froo stuff that everybody thinks women love. Those would absolutely get buried in my closet and never used. A bar of soap I will use but not a bottle of smelly shower gel. I guess the trick to ask a person what they will actually use!

13 years ago

You’re singing my tune! All of this STUFF really is a burden. Even coming up with suggestions of ‘stuff’ for people to buy me for Christmas is sort of a burden. I appreciate the thoughtfulness, of course. But add it all up and it’s very overwhelming. And add everyone’s up, and it leads to environmental devastation. :(

Erin aka Conscious Shopper
13 years ago

Ugh – I watched The Hours when I was pregnant with my first child, and I bawled through the whole movie and you couldn’t bribe me to watch it again. But I guess it’s okay if you like it. :)

But besides that, I thought this was a lovely post. Sometime I think about the fact that if I had fewer things than fewer things would get broken and fewer things would need to be fixed and I would have lots more money. It would also help if I didn’t have kids who break said things.

The Green Cat
13 years ago

I was thinking about this just last night. My friend R and I took our friend H out to dinner for a birthday celebration. R commented about how money is tight and she’d had to scale back on holiday gifts for the kids. During dinner, R handed H a box. “Happy Birthday!” she said. Inside was a bracelet. It was pretty but I suspect it was made of plastic. And mid-way through the meal H took it off and rubbed her wrist as if it were irritating her skin.

My initial thought was “Will H think less of me because I didn’t bring her a present?” I immediately realized that was silly. (R and I split the cost of dinner and I considered that my present.) I also thought about the fact that R had spent money she couldn’t really afford to buy a token gift that H probably didn’t want or need.

I’m much more interested in having quality experiences with friends to celebrate milestones and holidays than I am in having physical items. I wish more folks thought this way because it might eliminate some of the junk in our lives.

On a similar train of thought, I not only feel responsible for the items I am given but I also feel responsible for the packaging. Today I received a package from my brother. Among the packaging was a small paper tote bag–big enough for a small bottle. I wanted to recycle it but then I thought “Maybe I’ll have need of a small tote bag.” I’m pretty sure I won’ but I couldn’t toss out a perfectly good bag. Sigh–I’m now responsible for what happens to that bag.

13 years ago

thanks for sharing! I went through my books the other day, and reminded me that I have many to give away. As you say, even the ones you absolutely adore (like for me, the poisonous river, from Barbara Kingslover), there is a slight chance that I won’t read this book again and even more read it again *regularly*. And so far, so true.
How can you let go books without feeling that you somehow betray yourself, or the ones who gave them to you, as an kind way of saying “I picked this book for you because I know you so well that I know you will love this”. I have books I can easily let go of (Harry potter). I have true difficulties to dissociate the feelings attached to the reading, with the book itself as an inactive, taking dust object. How do you dissociate your feelings from an inert object? Surely I dont need an object to have feelings, do I?

13 years ago

I could not agree with you more. I have so much stuff I have run out of places to put it all. And what good does it do to move stuff from one place to the next? It’s like running on a gerbil wheel. You get nowhere. I love the idea of “giving experience” rather than material things, and have tried to do much more of that this year. (It’s a process) And the stuff around the house? OUTOUTOUT. Donate, sell ( is a good one for CDs and books), even trade. I’m trying to do a swap table with other parents near me. But geez, the stuff.

Julia (Color Me Green)
13 years ago

This is exactly why I have always followed the principle of refusing to own dvds and books. i don’t like to rewatch/reread things often enough for it to be worth it, when i can just rent/borrow them. or i’ll get a cookbook from a library first to judge whether or not i like it enough to want to buy it to have around as a permanent resource. i also feel uncomfortable accepting gifts that i don’t need, but how do you tell someone to stop getting you things without seeming ungrateful? i am hoping next week to sell/donate a bunch of unwanted stuff that has accumulated despite a similar purge only 6 months ago.

Condo Blues
13 years ago

I worked with a woman who felt the same way about gifts. She preferred consumable gifts instead of things that sat around her house type gifts because she has a small house and literally has to do the one new thing in one old thing out system. At first I thought this just meant food gifts, but she explained that it could be items that are used enjoyed and replaced such as candles, event tickets, lotion, memberships, etc. That’s when I started doing more experience type gifting (and asking) because I have small place too.

13 years ago

Yes, yes, yes, oh yes! I have become so tired of “stuff.” I feel responsible for it; I want to give it a good home. Ironically, as I’ve begun to make serious efforts to get rid of stuff that was once important to me, I’ve found that NO ONE wants it, but I can’t responsibly just throw it away, either. It’s kind of a cosmic practical joke on me — “you wanted it, ok, now, you keep it!” Curiously, I’ve found that the more I sell or give away, the more stuff I seem to have. Where is all this stuff coming from? Where on earth did I keep it all? Why did I ever get it in the first place?

13 years ago

Since around 2000 or so I’ve been working hard on appreciating what I have and simplifying my life as much as I can in every way. It has been a lot of work. I don’t have much attachment to most things, but it has still taken a lot of work to get to where I am. Like yourself, I appreciate food and company more than stuff…but that is a message few are willing to listen to.

I always think about a worst case scenario – what will I take if I had to leave tomorrow and how comfortable I am with leaving everything behind?

One thing I struggle with is going too far in being an ascetic. So it will always be a journey to figure out a middle ground.

13 years ago

I totally agree. I’m fortunate that my immediate family and my partner have agreed to do the charity thing this year instead of presents, but when we do give gifts, consumables (wine, food, iTunes cards) or experiences (just got my mum tickets to a show for her birthday) are definitely the go.

Having said that, if there’s a physical gift that’s really going to be enjoyed and used and won’t be Stuff, that’s good too. I gave my dad a heart rate monitor for his birthday this year – at his request – and he uses it every time he goes to the gym.

You’ll love your cull, Beth – I did one myself recently, passing along all but two boxes of books (of 14) and ripping and selling off all my CDs. It’s amazingly freeing!

heather t
13 years ago

I think you’re right, but there are some things, like your Hours DVD and my Big Fish DVD, that speak to your soul – you feel more like yourself just for having them around. Besides, who knows when the mood will strike to get those things out again? I recently pulled out music CDs I hadn’t listened to in years because I thought my kids would enjoy them (and they did).

That said, I also gave away two CDs to a friend who I thought might like them. And she did.

To answer your question, yes, I think we need to periodically go thru our collections to rediscover lost treasures, and to cull items that really never fit. And we’ll be better for it.

(Also? I want your Gorillaz CD! :D )