Stuff; or, How Radiohead is Setting Us Free

Monday morning, The Greatest Band On Earth (official title given by the Pope), announced that they were releasing their newest album, The King of Limbs, less than a week from now, Saturday.

The King of Limbs

This has made me more than a little giddy.

What Radiohead has done, yet again, is set up a situation where almost everyone in the world (those with musical taste) will be able to download the new album at once, so that the first listening of the album is a true communal experience.  That is a remarkable feat, but I think their release method is ushering in a far more interesting trend:

The end of physical consumerism.

Radiohead as a band, and Thom Yorke specifically, have commented in the past on their preference for physical media and they famously were resistant to releasing their music on iTunes (their library of albums only became available after they left the major label that retained the rights).  Like In Rainbows before it, The King of Limbs will see a physical release with an expensive, collector’s edition version of the album that includes vinyl records.  So, obviously, Radiohead is not burying the physical medium.

Also, Radiohead was not the first band to release their music digitally, not by a long shot.

Those caveats aside, Radiohead is one of the first and biggest bands to absolutely embrace the new digital medium and find a way to not only utilize the technological shift, but make it profitable.

I will download the new album, and because I am a fanatic and can’t help myself, I will likely end up owning a physical copy of it when it releases in stores (as I have every one of their albums).  But, as far as physical albums go, it will be one of the last I will ever buy (excluding any future Radiohead albums).

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about selling the majority of my CDs.  Since then, I haven’t bought one physical album, though I’ve bought my fair share of digital albums.  Selling the CDs served a two-fold financial purpose:  It brought in some immediate cash, and it has saved me money each time I have moved since, because it requires one less box of stuff for me to ship.

Which brings me to my point:  I don’t like having stuff.  Every year since I began this project, I have shed various amounts of detritus from my life, whether it be CDs or comic books, clothes or furniture.  When I left Philly, I left behind mounds of things that I had absurdly been moving with me for the previous two years.  I left behind even more upon leaving Costa Mesa, and San Francisco, and Chicago.

When I leave Nashville, I plan to lose one more box worth of stuff that I have been keeping with me all this time:  Books.

As a writer, it’s sacrilegious for me to suggest that owning physical books is anything short of life’s greatest gift.  And the truth is, I’m not getting rid of all my books.  I’m keeping my Fitzgeralds and my Kerouacs and my Dostoevskys and the other favorites.  Selling them off would be like selling off my liver, and frankly, my love of alcohol would never allow me to do either.

But, as gorgeous and spellbinding as To Kill A Mockingbird is, I don’t need to own a hardcover copy of it.  I’ve read it twice in my life, enjoyed it both times, will recommend it to anyone who asks, but having it sit in a box under my 25″ television isn’t serving any purpose, certainly not proving my worldliness.

Since my earliest years, I’ve wanted to own one of those breathtakingly immense libraries that fills shelves from floor to ceiling.  But why?  I don’t own a house and I hope I never will.  I’m not Jay Gatsby with strangers walking through my palatial mansion, checking to see if the pages of my books have been cut.

If, someday, I am well-off enough to have a nice penthouse apartment with room for a library of books, maybe I’ll go back and stock up on the classics (both old and modern).  Certainly, if I ever have a child, I’d like her to be raised in an environment that sets books on their proper altar.

Until then, though, my books are just one more albatross.

What do I need with physical things?

I am a human, I have emotional attachment to objects, and some of those attachments are too strong even for my soulless being to break.  Mostly, though, I hold onto things because it feels like I should own them, not because I need to own them.

When I move again, I’ll have my clothes, my laptop, (hopefully just) one box of books, a box of DVDs (until I can afford a laptop with enough storage to house my film and television collection, I’m holding onto my DVDs), a box of kitchen necessities and a box of my journals/notebooks/photo albums.  And ideally, that is it.

As we talk about being ‘greener’ and leaving less of a footprint on the earth, I can’t help but think that our consumerist need to own things is a step in the wrong direction.

I’m certainly not advocating for the end of books (flipping pages is the most edifying tactile experience one can have), and I don’t foresee them going away any time soon.

But physical albums (and movies for that matter) will be going the way of the T-Rex soon enough, and I’m relishing the evolution.  Yes, the technological shift will bring with it financial pains for most industries (we’ve been going through them for a decade, at least), but they are inevitable changes and only fools will set their feet down and refuse to go with the rushing waters of change.

Less stuff in our lives means less anchors to arbitrarily tie us down.  For the first time in history, traveling around the world does not require a lifetime commitment with the risk of death or financial ruin.  Yet most of us will still stay in place our entire lives, fastened to our bookshelves and our entertainment systems and our recliners and we will be satisfied, because our things will all be there when we get home from work.

It’s been said, you can’t take it with you.

I’m asking, why would you want to?

Thoughts during an illness.

I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent.  If not, enjoy the ride.

(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)

Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life:  a lack of money.  Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.

In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas.  Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers.  First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).

While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves.  I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before.  (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.)  While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent.  Well, I made it, but just barely.

And then Charlotte:  Wash, rinse and repeat.  All the same concerns, all the same pressure.  In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:

Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?

Repeat ad nauseum.

It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns.  While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.

And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill.  Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.

But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses.  Obviously.

It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout).  Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop.  Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could).  Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans.  And they have.

For instance:

When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her).  One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous.  I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep.  Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway.  He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).

After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks.  I assumed it was the flu.

Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday.  I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet.  It wasn’t the flu.  It was strep throat.

The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember).  There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep.  They gave me a shot of penicillin.  In the ass.

I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it.  My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.

For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday.  Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find).  I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.

The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year.  I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.

Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up?  In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?

Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff?  Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies,  maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.

Would I be better off with more money, more things?

I don’t own much right now.  Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.*  I don’t really need any more than that.  Want more?  Sure, but need…

Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat.  No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.

But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.

I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money.  I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries.  But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.

I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally.  I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art.  But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).

It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need.  Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.

*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king.  I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.