The meaning of stuff

Lately I’ve been thinking about stuff.

Just over thirteen years ago I packed my stuff into a half container and had it shipped across the world. A year later, when I finally moved into a tiny flat in South West London, I can still remember how thrilled I was to have my stuff all around me again. I remember filling the drawers of my beautiful wooden sideboard with games, crockery and assorted bits and pieces and ripping into the box marked CDs to plug into some much-missed Aussie favourites. It felt like Christmas and a birthday all rolled into one.

Spending so much time at home at the moment has made me realise how much stuff I have. Most of this original shipment is still with me and my years here – and a move to a bigger flat five and a half years ago – has seen me accumulate more.

What has struck me is how it runs my life. Last week, I spent almost three hours re-staining my 5-year-old outdoor setting. It was not a fun experience and as a mucky pup, I managed to get the wood stain in all sorts of places it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s a big job that’s been ticked off the list and I’m really pleased with how it looks. Until I have to do it again…

Outdoor setting freshly stained

Almost 3 hours of work and it looks great. But I know I’ll have to do it again…and again.

I saw Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, interviewed earlier in the year. It was clear that he’d been considering this as well.

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” 

His point was this. Before we caught on to the idea of cultivating more wheat than we needed, we hunted and gathered only as much food as we could eat, following and staying where the food source took us. Wheat had us stop and settle, invest time and energy and resources – including the building of fences and the shovelling of sh*t – to preserve and protect it. His question is ‘do we really think we are running the show?’

My question is now, ‘has my outdoor setting domesticated me?’

Stuff is everywhere. And here in London you cannot travel far without coming across a testament to it – a museum. And it’s been in visiting some of the smaller ones recently that has got me thinking about what stuff means and why preserve it.

In the last couple of months, I’ve visited the home of wealthy industrialist, Frank Green in York, the Hampstead home of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna and the home of architect and collector Sir John Soane in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For me, these personal collections of antiquities, curiosities and everyday items created a much greater sense of the person’s story and time. I was especially fascinated to learn that:

  • Sir John Soane was such an avid collector that he bought the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharoah Seti I (1303 – 1290 BC) when the British Museum ran out of money after it had secured the controversial Elgin Marbles.
  • Sigmund Freud was so attached to his stuff that he refashioned the study he had in Vienna in his new home in London, including THAT couch.
Freud Museum montage

Freud lived at Bergasse, 19 in Vienna for 47 years. Before he fled to London in 1938, he had his rooms in Vienna photographed with a view to recreating them in his new home.

Without stuff, how would we get a sense of what has happened before or what life was like? And yet the physical stuff is not the whole picture.

I attended a breakfast seminar in April which addressed the question of stuff. There was a lot of talk about decluttering, connoisseurship and the trend towards spending on experiences rather than things. Research shows that the Millennial generation in particular (born between the early 80’s and the late 90’s) are tending to share and access stuff versus owning it. Perhaps this is a conscious choice about being unencumbered and financial enough to travel, attend events, concerts and festivals, eat out and, as one media pundit noted, ‘drink their £4 coffees’.

The digital discussions around music (iTunes), streaming services (Netflix/Amazon Prime) and e-books were also interesting and in the face of their continued growth, the non-digital experiences associated with all three industries are being revisited. Vinyl has become the choice of the cool connoisseur. Cinemas are providing VIP services and collaborating with live event providers eg. theatre, opera, ballet and even the annual TED Conference, to expand their audience and revenue opportunities. And books? Well, e-book share is highest in the US, having grown to 25% since 2009, yet only 7% of people state that they will read only e-books in the future. (Source: PWC – The future of e-books 2016). That seems to me to be a gap for stuff to fill…

Here at Gidday HQ, the past few months have been chequered with bi-weekly trips to the charity shop as I’ve been weeding stuff out of cupboards, drawers and wardrobes. In the words of Steve Howard, CEO of global stuff purveyor IKEA…

If we look on a global basis, in the west I’d say we’ve probably hit peak stuff.” 

…and my cupboards probably agree. But with IKEA’s sales up 4.8%, their expansion into new markets going strong and the opening of their IKEA Museum in 2016, I’d say ‘I don’t think so’.

Consider this. How often have you been trapped shopped in the IKEA Market Hall and found yourself putting a funky new toilet roll holder (that you had to have) onto the checkout conveyor next to the matching-colander-and-spatula-set (that will be very handy) and yet-another-bag of 100 tea light candles (because we might’ve run out)? And who doesn’t love a Billy bookshelf – the home for books (and most likely other stuff) that ‘loves to grow’?

No. We like stuff. We like the stories stuff tells us about ourselves – how much or little of it we have, what it all means about us. And we like to check out other people’s stuff – in museums, on social media, on the bus – and decide what we think it means about them.

So to my mind, our relationship with stuff is still going strong and digitisation is just encouraging us to get more and more of it. Case in point: My Kindle currently holds 70+ books, about what I would normally read in a year. (I also have a bookshelf full of ‘proper’ books.)

But in our world of curated content and social media profiles, the tangible and/or visible stuff only tells part of our story. I wonder what the people who will populate the centuries ahead will imagine about us based on this – the visible/tangible stuff we leave behind? I’m not talking about the impact on the environment – that’s a question that could fill several blog posts – but about the minutiae of our daily lives.

And actually, come to think of it, what will the people, the ones who will be buying my pre-loved items from the local op-shop, think about me!?

The road to motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day in the UK.

I am close to my Mum and always have been. Even though I now live on the opposite side of the world, we still keep all the connections going and spent time together just recently when I was in Melbourne over the Christmas / New Year period.

Others are not so fortunate. Some will spend the day in remembrance whilst a great many more will fall somewhere between the luxury of close proximity and feeling separated emotionally. For still others, this is just another day.

In Australia, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May so today is a bit of an awkward one for me. There’s the flurrying around me here but my official nod happens in May. I’ve been grappling with how best to acknowledge this UK version for the last couple of days.

Continue reading

The straight-talking timekeepers of the zodiac

In case you missed it, today is the Chinese New Year and we are now embarking on the Year of the Rooster.

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I bought this hand-painted tile in Portugal in 2002

According to the December issue of Director magazine (which I was flicking through yesterday), Roosters are uncomplicated and straightforward. The website travelchinaguide.com also claims that Roosters are “almost the epitome of fidelity and punctuality. For ancestors who had no alarm clocks, the crowing was significant, as it could awaken people to get up and start to work”.

I am an absolute stickler for time-keeping, loyalty and keeping my word (and expecting you to keep yours too!) so it is probably no surprise to you when I say that I am a Rooster.

Anyway, in conducting a bit of research for this post, I learnt that the Chinese Zodiac also assigns one of five elements – fire, earth, water, gold and wood – to each lunar year and that 2017 is a Fire Rooster year.

However being born in 1969 makes me an Earth Rooster. Continue reading

Drunken monkeys and solar panels

I am a curious person. I’ve mentioned it before, this tendency to lose myself in the pursuit of interesting things. It becomes a bit like the proverbial rabbit hole as I follow some convoluted thread through not only my regular ‘haunts’ but also to new and inspiring sources that I inevitably add to my ‘follow’ list.

This week’s haul has been particularly rich in the ‘how interesting’ department so here are a few of the titbits I loved the most.

The smell before the storm

I love that smell just before a storm hits. It’s a really clean, slightly metallic smell that heralds the impending downpour. Well according to my regular dose of Mental Floss, that smell is caused by electrical charges that break down atoms which then reform into nitric oxide. This reacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere to create ozone which causes the ‘chlorine’ odour.

However, I question the chlorine claim. After all, I swim a couple of times a week and believe me, that pool smells like chlorine. Maybe a lifetime of swimming has made me less sensitized to ozone’s more fragrant charms. Or perhaps there’s something familiar and comforting being triggered in my brain. In any case, it was one more conundrum solved and led me to ponder whether more storms would help to fix the hole in the ozone layer.

The drunken monkey hypothesis

Flipboard is a great app that allows you to choose what types of articles you’d like to receive and I love dipping in and out during my commute. This week I found my way to a piece in Esquire that delved into the origins of alcohol consumption. It appears that this goes well beyond the human condition and was critical for our predecessors’ survival.

You see, while modern life finds us all looking for ways to reduce our caloric intake, our primate ancestors found feasting on over-ripe (and therefore fermenting) fruit an excellent way to get the energy needed to swing from tree to tree all day long. Add to that the need to survive by hunting and gathering enough to eat and you’ve got yourself the perfect excuse to booze all day, every day.

I wonder how much booze my fortnightly online grocery shopping would permit me. Not much I suspect.

The pyramid inside the mountain

Flipboard also led me to BBC Future piece on the ancient pyramid beneath a mountain – well, actually underneath a tiny hilltop church in Chohula in the Mexican highlands. The article reports that the pyramid is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. I’ve been to Giza so I can only imagine how huge this one must be. Chohula was described by Cortez as “the most beautiful city outside Spain” and the BBC article reports that there are over 500 tunnels to be explored.

Mexico has been on my travel bucket list for some time but fell away as I started to read more about China and the Silk Roads cultures. However, an archaeologically-inspired visit would be an amazing thing to do. So much to do, so little time (and money).

*Sigh*

And last but not least…

The car that gives back

There’s been a lot in the press about self-driving cars and I had my first Tesla close up a couple of weeks ago at their showroom in a local shopping centre. While there was no test drive (or test no-drive as the case may be), I did think that the Model S was very nice indeed.

But Tesla are not just applying their energy breakthroughs in the automotive industry. Via this week’s Springwise newsletter, I learned that my very own hometown of Melbourne may have their first sustainable suburb in new development, YarraBend. Applying Tesla’s technology may mean energy reductions of up to 34% with the developers also suggesting significant decreases in water usage (43%) and landfill (80%).

Before I moved to London in 2004, I read about an initiative to place solar panels on the roof of Melbourne’s Victoria Market in an effort to power the surrounding suburbs. I felt a little swell of Aussie pride that Melbourne continues to champion ways to address some of our critical climactic challenges.

So there you have it – my top four commuting gems from this week. It’s certainly been a rich vein so I hope you found something here to pique your curiosity.

Making life interesting

If you are a regular Gidday-er you’ll know that I’m the curious sort and love to explore. Lucky for me, this also spills into my career (I work in marketing and innovation for a global packaging company) where I have the remit to seek out, to question and to fill the virtual bucket in my head with new ideas. This can appear quite convoluted to those who have a more linear approach to information gathering and problem solving but I’m known for being able to let all of the stuff in my head ‘percolate’ to come up with new proposals and approaches…and sometimes even new problems!

My colleagues tease me for my [over?] use of the word interesting but I love it. And I’m always on the lookout for the new, the unusual, the fun and the fascinating so I thought I’d share three things with you that got me a bit excited this week.

Making life fun

A partnership between Hungarian Telecom, Isobar and the Budapest Festival Orchestra has brought music to the street – literally. Find one of their interactive posters and with a wave of your smartphone, you too can become the maestro and conduct the orchestra. Did I hear you say, ‘Wow’? Then click here to find out more.

Now wouldn’t that make getting from A to B a whole lot more fun? You could be like a flash mob…of one.

Making life safe(r)

Every day my commute to the office takes me beneath the towering clock face of Big Ben and past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. In the morning, we are all commuters, moving as one across the busy streets with smartphones in hand. In the afternoon, London’s many tourists have well and truly emerged to saunter all over the pavement, their heads swiveling and their eyes skywards, posing for selfie after selfie. As they absorb all of the magnificence around them, they are completely oblivious to anything else…including the traffic. Let me tell you I’ve seen a few near misses standing on the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Square waiting to cross the road.

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Waiting to cross Bridge Street to Westminster Underground Station

This week Springwise.com reported that a new approach to pedestrian protection is being pioneered by Augsburg in Germany – traffic lights embedded into the road at tram stops. This means that all of the digital natives and the millennials – as well as those of us who are trying to keep up with the young, hip and cool – can monitor the red-green-amber of the situation without glancing away from the screen. ‘How interesting’, I hear you say – you can read more here.

Making life interesting

And finally, you might remember that in my February round-up, I mentioned attending a live stream of the opening session of this year’s TED conference. My favourite talk of the night was by Riccardo Sabatini about his passion for understanding the human genome and the power for personalised medicine that this represents. I was absolutely transfixed and since then, I have been waxing lyrical (or boring people senseless with my excited wittering) about this talk to pretty much anyone who’ll listen.

Well this week I am delighted to say that this talk has been made available on the TEDtalks website…just step this way peeps. If you want to be fascinated by what it really is that makes us human, you must click here.

So there you have it – my wows from the week just gone and I’d love to hear whether you’ve found a little spark of interesting in your week.

After all, I am the curious sort…