Thursday, January 14, 2016

Speakers, 'phones, swifts and winders: in praise of stuff

In Jan Krul's Werel-Hatende Nootsaackelijke (On the Necessity of Other Worldliness) the poet wrote that "an overflow of treasures afflicts the heart and buries the soul in the deepest travail"... The playwright Vondel, no Calvinist, warned in similar terms that Amsterdam was "smothered and softened from such an overflow of goods [stof]"

The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama.

I've been thinking about stuff. Interesting that almost the same word was used the Dutch at that time (early 17th century) with much the same sense as it is now: things you didn't need, worldly clutter, unnecessary material overload. And people had the same ambivalent relationship with it, seeking to acquire it and feeling guilty about it, or claiming to. Sometimes the guilt is about it being to one's spiritual detriment, sometimes that it will get in the way of our human relationships, or that it will soften up our collective moral fibre. It was ever thus, as the above quotes, and many more, way back to scripture and the Roman Empire at least, show; dualism may have been condemned as heresy but there has always been a tension for human beings between matter and spirit, it seems to me, with a fear that the former is the enemy of the latter.

I tend to think I'm someone who neither has, needs or wants too much stuff, but then don't we all? Yet I'm always somewhat wary when I hear tirades about the rampant materialism and consumerism the world is apparently sinking under, partly because I can't quite believe it, though I dare say it's true, that people are really so obsessively greedy and materialist and wastefully acquisitive, spending (like all the Athenians and strangers which were there) their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear - or to acquire - some new thing. Also though, I often feel such tirades to be a rather knee-jerk, glib unsatisfactory reaction to our relationship with stuff. 

One of the most frequent truisms, and good money has been spent, I've heard, on studies to establish it, is that happiness is not to be found in the acquisition of goods, of the latest toy or piece of technology, but in joyful interaction with our fellow humans, and in enjoyable experiences. I'm a bit sceptical about the two things being necessarily related, but that aside, what's most of the stuff people acquire for, in fact? Communication, contact, furthering their relations with their friends and relations - indeed the problem often seems to be not that people are becoming remote and alienated from each other that they have too much unremitting connection and availability demanded of them. Otherwise, though, the stuff we acquire serves to help us enjoy the experience of music, film, reading etc, or to research and get closer to all the obscure and wonderful and fascinating things the world contains. Surely these things can be food for the soul? I know there are people who love and hoard useless trinklements, but I think mostly, as we get older anyway, that what we want is to pursue, experience and hold in the mind or the hand for a moment, our idea of beauty, whatever form that takes. I know this is the ideal, and that technology can also be used to further hatred and abuse and all things toxic and ugly, but either way, matter is no more or less than the means to the spirit. 

So I'm quite in favour of stuff I think, within reason. Among that which I personally acquired this Christmas (I order it then give the parcels to Tom to give to me at the appropriate time), was a small Bluetooth speaker - (it's only taken me about fifteen years to know what Bluetooth means)

(black object on the left)

This was in order to listen to podcasts, music and other audio from the small computer anywhere, usually while sitting on my backside making more stuff to fill the world, as can be seen. It's rather bothersome, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I find now that simply reading alone is becoming quite difficult; I grow restless and find it hard to concentrate, I need something in my hands, knitting of course, but it's not really so easy to do both. I don't know why this is, I fear too much knitting is quite literally scattering my wits (if wits can be literal, being an abstract concept...); I've grown too used to sitting and allowing my thoughts to wander. On the other hand, knitting alone, long tracts of time with just wool and my meandering, often repetitive and inconsequential, sometimes troubling, thoughts, can become heavy or just boring; improving listening is the answer, mind and hands being put to work at once.

The speaker was OK, good to be without the wires so I didn't end up tangled up in yarn and cable like a woolly-minded suicide bomber, or a knitting version of those telepathic people the Shadows put in their space ships in Babylon 5, or something, though the range isn't great. However, part of the point was for Tom and I to be able to retire to our own little bubbles of conciousness sometimes without disturbing each other, and having the speaker chuntering away didn't really serve this end. I found I could stick the cabled headphones into it, but that rather defeated the purpose, and anyway, doing so caused the speaker itself to pack up altogether, so I sent it all back and replaced it with a set of wireless headphones, which are so far so good, and a very cheap, supposedly waterproof, speaker for the odd occasion when it might be useful.

Our on-line retail haul of electronic-related stuff
In fact it seems to me that technology, rather than increasing it, is tending towards reducing the physical stuff, simplifying and minimising the volume of the hardware, aiming towards smaller and smaller units performing more and more functions, and more of these taking place directly on-line. I don't go in for very much of this myself; my 'phone is a 'phone, with an extra mobile one to be mobile, my camera is a camera, with a card which I stick in the big computer to download and edit the photos there, my e-reader is pale grey with buttons. This is because I don't care to replace things till I have to, am rather lazy about learning new operating skills till I have to, and while all these things are getting cheaper all the time too, I think I can still save more money by making do and mending and bolting on extra bits if I have to, which was how I saw the Bluetooth stuff. After all the excitement with that, as a gesture of frugality, I thought it would be a good idea to prolong the life of our fourteen year old dumbphones, which were needing to be kept almost continually on charge, so that I frequently forgot to take mine out with me, by getting them new batteries. Unfortunately, while the batteries were apparently unused, with their stickers still in place, I imagine they may be nearly as old as the mobiles, and don't seem to hold the charge much better than the old ones. Never mind, they cost little, and it puts off decisions about replacement a little longer. 

In fact I am wilfully reluctant about phones, or about vocal telephonic interaction anyway, as I may have said before, though I know a smartphone would allow me to avoid it by being able to text and e-mail anywhere, as well as other benefits. It turns out the main use of the wireless speaker is to use it in conjunction with one's 'phone, so one needn't can't under any pretext curtail a 'phone conversation. Awful idea, a kind of telephonic Sartrian huit clos, IMO. 

Or else people use them for Skype. 

'Skype's marvellous!', asserts my 80+ year old friend J, 'I can be on it with so-and-so for an hour, it's free, and you can see the person!'.

'I'm sure,' I reply 'but I don't want anything to do with it'. 

I've been dragged into Skype conversations with her family, I feel horribly trapped, self-conscious, intruding and intruded on, and everyone looks weird. I'm sure it's just me, and I'd probably get used to it if I had to. Most of the people I know who really love it are grandmothers. Pace Skype users, I know you're the normal sensible ones and I'm not.


Stuff, of course also has the old sense of fabric, cloth, which I suppose has always been one of the ways in which conspicuous consumption could manifest itself. I like stuff like that, too; though I really don't trouble with or spend much on clothes per se, I certainly accumulate more than I can ever use of the stuff that makes stuff. Some of this comes in skeins (or hanks, maybe there's a Brit/US divergence there), which are lovely and solid and feel like something very ancient in their design. Problem is you can't knit from wool in the skein, so it needs to be wound. Tom has always been very good about taking on the traditional tamed man's role of holding and moving the skein for me to wind, but he's not always available, and also, hand wound balls are round, the wool being pulled from the outside, so they bounce around and get dirty, and are a nuisance, even if you don't have a kitten around to do the archetypal kitten thing.

So, I treated myself to a swift and a winder.

The swift is the thing you stretch the wool onto, which takes the place of Tom. This one is an Amish design, very simple with just a stand, arms and moveable pegs, but remarkably smooth and fast in its action, and I do believe a thing of beauty.

The winder, well it winds. But it does it in such a way that instead of a bouncy round ball you have a delightful little cylindrical cake of wool, which remains stable while you draw the thread from the centre. This is formed in such a way that the wool is layered in a kind of honeycomb construction:

Boxing Day afternoon was spent in a blissful whirl, swift and winder spinning in hypnotic wise, winter sun through the window, colour and feel of yarn through my fingers. It took me back to childhood Christmases, when one had toys and things to make things with to set up and play with and put to work; till one put away childish things and only had books and records and such like, things where the interaction was, if not more passive, more within the mind. I had forgotten the pleasure. 

Sadly, I very quickly wound up most of the yarn I have in skeins, even resorting to turning the tapestry wool into tiny cakes, and have no more to play with. It's tempting to go out and buy more, or go internet shopping for it, just for the fun of winding it, but I'll have to knit some up to make room for it first. 

Enough's enough when it comes to stuff.

Turn it off and KNIT something!:
'Turn it off and KNIT something!'



the polish chick said...

"an overflow of treasures afflicts the heart and buries the soul in the deepest travail"... ah yes, that. we're in the midst of packing and this feels particularly true. i've also just made peace with selling the place that was my beloved home for these past 5 years, ready for new adventures!

a thoughtful post that made me think of many many things. i wish i had the space and time to read it properly instead of guiltily skimming through it as i run from bag to box to container.

your christmas morning sounds just perfect! i managed to have one and a half days to myself this christmas and though i didn't play with yarn, the solitude was delicious!

Roderick Robinson said...

There is far too much here; too many hares started and my gun turns out to be made of chocolate so it's useless twice over. Not that I would ever kill a hare; one of the reasons for my existence is to provide atonement for my father's membership (and secretaryship) of the Airedale Beagles, an organisation not merely a pack of dogs devoted to killing hares, though making this task slightly more difficult by doing it on foot.

A semantic aside: the German for plastics is Kunststoffe which, in one sense, could be translated as artwork. Ironic, eh?

So no epiphanies with the ear-phone thingy, but only if we assume epiphanies are glittering experiences of short duration. Might there be such things as 10,000-metre epiphanies, marathon epiphanies or ones that last from birth to death.

The key may lie in your sentence: "I've grown too used to sitting and allowing my thoughts to wander." While the proof for we happy readers is in this hare-starting post. From dualism (Oh how I wanted to expatiate - there is no other verb! - and - yet again! - about my relationship with my William Morris pattern, bone china mug) to a little throwaway about BlueTooth whereby, with the utmost kindness, you set your readers' equally confused minds at rest.

Those wandering thoughts could be your readers' continuing epiphany and, if we keep up the flow of appreciative (yet articulate and preferably original) comments, that epiphany may some times turn through 180 deg and shine on its progenitor, not in a blinding flash but in a deep-orange glow of warmth.

Rather high-flown I fear. So let me remind myself that technology was once my game and Barrett Bonden once my name. The winder - I immediately see both its utility and its entrancement, I almost want one but would settle for a video of it in action. Accompanied by you - in full Librivox spate - reading the sentence: "Boxing Day afternoon was spent in a blissful whirl, swift and winder spinning in hypnotic wise, winter sun through the window, colour and feel of yarn through my fingers." Bringing in too the phrase "a delightful little cylindrical cake of wool" at your discretion. The winder needed no adornment, that was received wisdom; but received wisdom is nearly always unwisdom and you have elegantly slain it. A tiny epiphany for me if for no one else.

Avus said...

So - the winder is "remarkably smooth and fast in its action, and I do believe a thing of beauty". Does it really replace Tom, though, who I am sure has comparable qualities?

Ellena said...

I think that all Amish-made things are things of beauty.
Have you control over how tight the winder winds the wool?
As to the swift, I can also see it coming in handy when wool needs to be stretched after unraveling a big piece of work. My Oma used to unravel knitted items and then wet the wool and then stretch it over I don't remember what to dry. End result new looking wool. Oh no, 70 years ago.
I love Skype. Half an hour talk with Pasha in the morning, half an hour with Besito de Luz and the boys in the evening and the occasional conversation with brother and sister-in-law.
Sorry Lucy, much more to say but tired.

Catalyst said...

Judy and I have begun to rid ourself of "stuff" that has accumulated through the decades. She says it's so our kids won't have to do it, or at least so much of it, when we're gone. While I am not the procrastinator in my family, I tend to ignore the things I'm supposed to be doing.

We are also trying hard not to accumulate more things. Books would probably be tops on that list and we now live within a mile or so of a free book exchange and the library, quite a good one, is only a few miles away. So we're not buying books any longer. Now, how to get rid of our already voluminous library, that's another thing.

By the way, I'm still at a loss about Bluetooth. I guess I'll just have to ask the Almighty Google to explain it to me. One of these days.

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

Bluetooth. I still don't really know even though I now own some. I remember some 14 years ago a prof at the lycée I was working at asked if I knew what it was. I didn't. Then a couple of years ago it came up on Room 101 (BBC programme where people air their pet hates) about the annoyingness of people wearing the headsets, but I still didn't really know. My notebook computer has been asking me for a while if I wanted to enable it, but the slightly older main laptop doesn't have the option.

Essentially it seems to be a way of connecting to wireless audio devices universally, but you can't seem to do more than one at once... Tom's had wireless headphones from the TV for a while, I can hear the audio at the same time as he can through the phones, but that's done by some cleverbuggery with wires and scart plugs which he sorted out and has since forgotten how. Previous attempts at wireless listening were complicated and ineffective, but this works fairly well except for the limited range. It's really meant, as I understand it, for people to listen to their i-devices on one part of their person through headsets on another, so the range doesn't matter so much.

My electronics savvy oldest brother recommended it when we were talking about internet radio, so I looked it up and the speakers and 'phones really have got very cheap. Radio is one of my greatest joys so it's a boon to be able to access it well, my internet radio unit is fine for current play but disappointingly useless for podcasts. When I sent the first one back, the lady at the post office asked what was in the package, and I tried to explain, ineptly describing it as a pregnant for the computer (the word for 'speaker' in French is the masculine of the word for pregnant, don't ask me why), and she said 'ah oui, un enceint Bleutoot' so evidently they are well known here and probably often have to be mailed back whence they came.

Please read the follow up comment for your individual replies!

Lucy said...

PC - I think our relationship with our material stuff informs the passage of our lives. Something that often intrigues me is how some objects are our companions for great lengths of time, and others come and go and are forgotten, but it's not always predictable which will be which. There are also things I think of and can't for the life of me remember the going of! Good luck with the packing.

Robbie - always original and articulate! I fancied doing a video, but in fact the co-ordination of swift and winder, while seeming to be smooth and effortless, requires a certain kind of concentration and attentiveness that doesn't really allow for other things, like holding the camera. As it was a moment's inattention resulted in at least three strands of precious hand spun alpaca getting wrapped around the winder's cogs. I somehow found a way to reverse the mechanism and free it without breaking the yarn, but it was a tense moment. I'll work on a way to record it though. Please read the prologue of this comment reply regarding Buetooth!

Avus - only in the wool winding department!

Ellena - my remark about grandmothers and Skype was meant only in a good way, I promise! I'm sure if I were your family I would bless it daily for bringing you closer. The wool winder seems to know how tightly to wind. What I forgot to mention is that Tom hacked and tinkered with the guide part of it with a piece of cable sheathing so it works considerably better. On the matter of unravelling (or frogging, as it is now known in knitting circles - 'rip-it, rip-it!), I have a plug ugly cotton sweater that for some reason I slogged to the end of last year before acknowledging its nastiness, but which I thought could perhaps be redeemed as a waistcoat (vest in American English), but I dreaded the chore of its undoing and rewinding. The kit, however, makes me look forward to the task. I might even do the wetting and stretching thing.

Cat - Judy is right. Dealing with my mum's accumulated stuff left me with a horror of the matter (pun intended). On the other hand I think if it's made clear that there is no dead hand obligation about it, and what it should mean, then enjoy your stuff as you please and absolve those who come after of guilt beforehand. But there is something lightening and wholesome about ditching things too. In fact the electronic media can facilitate this, with so much storable in tiny spaces on small devices now.

Zhoen said...

Those wool rolls are beautiful. I always loved a new wool/ string/ thread spool, it seemed so perfect and pleasing, when I only made lumpy messes.

This articulates a lot of what I feel, that denial of the physical or the spiritual damages both. When our things own us. When we don't have enough. It's a matter of balance, but we are taught so often that one is better than the other, and I don't think it is.

I more vividly remember when I have a physical reminder, Aunt Evelyn's tea towels, Mrs. Osdean's christmas ornaments, Uncle Ernie's little chair from the school where he worked. They carry stories through time.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Lucy, this is an important subject and one that needs deep reflection. You've made me want to write something about it, maybe a blog post in answer to yours. I haven't written anything lately so it's a welcome trigger. Forgive me if I comment too briefly at the moment and thank you for another excellent post and the wonder of wool pictures. I never thought wool could be photogenic but it's your eye that makes it so.

Ellena said...

Sweet Lucy. It's Skype that did it. I did not even notice the grandmother.

Fire Bird said...

'Trinklements' is great!
I'm not a fan of skype etc either....

Nimble said...

I like your thoughtful and contrary resistance to the usual condemnation of material goods. The swift looks captivating. I would want more wool too.

Pam said...

Books. And glass. Food for the soul, both (for me).

Crafty Green Poet said...

there's good stuff (craft supplies, books, music) and there's less good stuff. It's very easy as an environmentalist to find yourself with eg a big box overflowing with envielopes - you never know when you might need them but even with my Etsy shop and selling books through the Green Book Club, I still have too many envelopes than I'll ever use - I should just recycle a whole load of them!

Having helped a friend clear our her mother's house, though I can definitely say that some people just hoard stuff of all kinds that has no real use or has outgrown its use and that canbe a problem, not least for family members doing the clearing out.

Crafty Green Poet said...

when I talk about my overflowing box of envelopes i mean envelopes to re-use. That's the environmental part to it!