03 August 2009

The Modern Material Culture Maelstrom

My family didn't believe in letting thing go if they still worked. Though chock-full, the shed was orderly, because that had been my grandfather's way. When we'd come to live with him and Gran, he'd drawn an outline for every commonly used tool. That was where he'd wanted that tool to be replaced every time it was used, and that was where it was still kept now. I could reach unerringly for the trowel, which was maybe the oldest tool in the shed.

- Sookie Stackhouse in "Dead and Gone" (2009) by Charlaine Harris at page 149.

One of technology's more mundane consequences is that the physical shapes and demands of your tangible material things, modern material culture, is constantly and rapidly changing. It isn't a crisis, unless the magazine proclaiming it is Family Circle (a magazine that is oddly relevant and is as immersed in the paradoxes of modern life with lush desserts competing with diet and exercise plans under its covers). But, it adds to the generally ephemeral and inconstant tumult of our daily lives.

In 19th century Prussia, from which my Willeke ancestor emigrated to the United States in 1847, which was emerging as the first modern welfare state since ancient Rome, they had the most detailed legal code that history has ever known. It even prescribed the days upon which homemakers would do each kind of chore.

My little half-duplex bungalow was built in 1925. While it was a home built for a working class family to live in, not as fancy as some of its neighbors, it still features some of the arts and crafts details of that architectural era.

It has a built in display case. There is a mail slot in the front of the house and a milk slot on the side of the house leading into the kitchen. Our neighborhood still has milk delivery if you want it from a local dairy, but the milk slot is long ago boarded up. The dishwasher is there now. When we renovated our kitchen, we had to have a new cabinet installed for our favorite appliance, the microwave. Our abundance of small electrics: a CD player, the ice cream maker, the blender, the mixer, the two food processors, the toaster, the rice cooker, the slow cookers, the expresso maker, and the coffee grinder, have all had to find homes, displacing space in cabinets traditionally reserved for pots and pans, I suspect.

We have a coal chute, a room the the coal was stored in that now houses still working old computer monitors, sleeping bags, seasonal decorations, fishing rods and the cat's litter box. The steam heat system was retrofitted to accommodate a gas line, but you could still operate it with coal if you wished. The swamp cooler we added to the house, because an uncooled house seems less tolerable these days than it did, means we need a place for an extra tall ladder and a swamp cooler cover in the garage.

Our one car detached garage was designed at a time when cars were smaller. Our Honda fit, just barely. Our new Hyundai Sante Fe SUV would be a challenge to open the doors to enter and exit even if our garage was empty. So, we use the garage as a lawn shed, woodworking room, camping equipment storage area, bicycle garage and staging area for our big purple recycling bin on wheels instead. Our neighbor across the alley doesn't like it if we leave the recycling bin in the alley all the time, it interferes with their ability to back out of their car parking pad in the tight space.

Televisions have been part of family life for sixty years, but the new ones have very different space requirements than the old ones. Elaborate home computer network wiring, pitched as the wave of the future in the 1990s, has become irrelevant with the rise of WiFi networks and bluetooth connections. We still have a desktop computer, but its replacement will be physically smaller and need a different space. Our recent farewell to Qwest and hello to Comcast, as our provider of broadband services and telephone services, has necessitated a different shaped box that doesn't fit where the old one did. Our ultimate surrender to cable from a converter box and bunny ears has changed the space our television needs and dictated that it find a new home.

A corner of the house reserved for sitting at a land line telephone and talking is no longer important. And, somewhere along the way, phone books became a lot less useful than I remember them being growing up in a small town where everyone listed their numbers. But now, a bevy of incompatible chargers for devices large, medium and small need homes. Our corded electric lawnmower for our postage stamp lawn does not require a place in the garage for its fuel, but we have to be more conscious of the locations of our outdoor accessible plugs and find a home for its extension cord. Tools I never knew existed, like a weed rooter, an improvement upon the venerable trowel and hand hoe, have become mainstays of our daily chores.

Recycling has required not just the big purple bin in the garage, but a multiple waste stream system of bins in my home and office, separating recycling from trash according to ever mutating rules. Plastic bottles, once relegated to the trash bin, are now recycled. While we haven't jumped in with two feet, we now have reuseable page to bring to the grocery store and library, which have to have their own place. Several of my neighbors have municipal compost bins, and we will likely join them sooner or later, and have to come up with a places for that bin too.

Even closets are not immune. I need fewer ties and fewer suits than I once did. I am one of the few holdouts who still sometimes wears cuff links to work, so I still need a place for them. As khakis and shirts that don't have to be pressed have entered the business wear collection, they have been promoted from the dresser to the closet.

My old house doesn't have a front door coat closet. Perhaps people used to enter by the side door, or perhaps they had a free standing wardrobe. Whatever solution they devised, we need one for today. Winter coats aren't as bulky as they used to be, a consequence of technology no doubt. Shoes, however, seem more varied as footware it tailored to its intended use. When my wife and kid's visited her sister's family and her parents recently, the nine people there required three or four pairs of shoes each for their week and a half long visit. Japanese style shoe lockers will no doubt soon be a hot item. Our shoes are too fat to fit in hanging shoe racks designed for the slim heels and sandals women bought back when women were the only people needed different shoes for different occasions.

Molly Brown's house had an armoire sized radio and a table for calling cards when the first family to live in my home was still living there. Now, the iPods and iPhones don't take much space, but we must find time in our weeks to attend to our Facebook accounts. The point is not that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The point is that rapid change in the nature of the stuff of your daily life makes you despair of ever having a house where you always know were your trowel goes.

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