A love-hate relationship with all that holiday stuff

November 24, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Black Friday indeed.

Not that we needed it, but some of the malls opened at 12:01 a.m. today to jump-start this year's holiday shopping season. At a time when you can pretty much shop 24/7, online and in real life, and when we've already had the seasonal merchandise rioting - over the new PlayStations - did anyone really need to be at KB Toys at midnight?

I love and loathe this time of year. All that sparkly stuff at the stores both attracts and repels me.

Part of it is working at a newspaper, where, if you're around any length of time, you've so often done the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping story - not to mention the day-after-Christmas returns story, and the back-to-school shopping story, and the tax-free shopping week story - that you want to move to a remote mountaintop and live like a Zen monk who owns just a robe and a mug for tea.

At a paper where I previously worked, there was a perhaps apocryphal story about a photographer who got so tired of being assigned to take the annual picture of shoppers flooding downtown on the day after Thanksgiving that he turned in a photo from the rolls he shot the year before.

(A brief aside: Did that sentence hopelessly date me, with its reference to downtown shopping and rolls of film?) The photo was published, and all seemed fine until a reader called, hysterical over picking up the morning paper and seeing the face of her father, who had died the previous year but was clearly identifiable in the crowd of shoppers.

But the worst part of this time of year is that I have too much stuff already, and no doubt so do the people I now will start shopping for.

I'm not, although I wish I were, one of those live-simply people, but neither am I particularly or conspicuously consuming. I fall somewhere in the guilty middle, where I buy enough stuff to feel bad, but not so bad that I buy less.

(I checked out one of those Web sites devoted to the "voluntary simplicity" movement, and on every screen there was a long, clickable list of stuff - from calendars to books to CDs and DVDs - to buy. Apparently, you need to buy stuff to learn how not to buy so much stuff.)

I tend to obsess on something to the point where the only way to stop the obsession is to just buy the darn thing. Which, of course, doesn't necessarily close the book - or pocketbook, rather - on the matter, but generally leads to other purchases. In other words, stuff begets stuff, which is why The Container Store exists.

This week, for example, my husband and I finally got a new mattress set to replace a really old one - on my side of the bed there was basically one sliver where a coil wouldn't poke me in a kidney, so I spent most nights tossing around trying to find that elusive sweet spot.

The new mattress is such a marvel of pure, marshmallow comfort, though, that surely we couldn't let our imperfect bodies come into direct contact with so perfect a platform. The mattress needed a mattress pad, so I headed out to one of those linens 'n' beyond stores. To get to the mattress pads, though, I had to make it through all the "beyond" stuff.

So into my cart, with the mattress pad, went the latest object of my obsession, a coffeemaker. I already have one, but this one makes cappuccino and hot chocolate and, who knows, maybe martinis as well - but only with special pods of coffee rather than the ground coffee that I also already have. In fact, as I was writing this, I broke away to another screen on my computer to comparison shop and buy some additional pods.

Stuff begets stuff that begets stuff.

Which is where Judith Levine found herself several years ago, prompting the Brooklyn- and Vermont-based writer to impose a shopping moratorium on herself that resulted in a book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.

She and her partner, Paul, bought only necessities - groceries, Internet access (because they both work from home) - and eschewed trips to the mall, restaurants, movies and bookstores.

You might think that Levine, who is a liberal, feminist, socially aware sort, would end up writing a book about the joys of untethering herself from consumerism, about how she discovered the beauty of borrowed classics from the library and dancing barefoot through fields of flowers. As Borat learned to add after a comic pause, NOT!

"I felt lonely and even a little bored, which surprised and chagrined me," Levine told me in a telephone interview this week. "You can read all the 19th century novels you want, but you have to live in the culture. We would have friends over for dinner, and I wouldn't know what they were talking about. I'm a journalist, so I like to know things."

She did relapse a couple of times during the year, 2004. "Being a woman, both times involved clothes," she said. "So I felt a little guilty, but it felt good because being bad feels good - and that's one of the appeals of shopping."

Still, after the experiment ended, she didn't rush out to buy a year's worth of stuff in a single day. She rented some movies, Paul bought some Q-tips. "I didn't have a long list of ungratified desires," Levine said. "I found that if you wait five minutes, the desire passes."

For the holidays, they still bake and give holiday cookies to their friends, and host a latke party - sort of an eat-until-you-drop rather than a shop-until-you-drop tradition. And by not buying their friends gifts, they have given them the best gift of all.

"They're relieved," Levine said, "because then they don't have to give us gifts."


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