Consumer Objectivity Down the Literal Drain

  by Sam Van Eman 

Transcript of this recording:

Two years ago, we bought a foreclosed home. The loan stipulated that we finish the upstairs bathroom which previous owners must have started but couldn’t afford to finish before being evicted. It was all studs, insulation, and exposed plumbing, and I argued that we didn't need to finish it yet since we had another one downstairs. I promised to take on the project myself, but the bank didn't budge. So we compiled a list of item numbers and paid a contractor to finish the job.

It's been two years, and we've never really used the downstairs bathroom I originally claimed would be sufficient. Turns out that except for a few emergencies, it served better as a tool storage for current projects. My wife was right: It really was a mess.

Last week, with tax return in hand and help from a friend who knows more than I do, I began gutting what had become the tool storage. I checked off his to-do list, even squeezing under the crawlspace for inspection and digging (By the way, a cubic yard of dirt is a lot to move while lying on your back in the dark).

Every trip to both local and box stores, I bought supplies based on what caught my attention from the shelf. Not willy-nilly decisions, but reasonable decisions. Products complement each other so well that if I saw an item on sale, I could pack it into the cart and take it home, knowing I'd find its match later.

Then yesterday evening, after comparing prices of what seemed to be rather different items, a reflection drew me out of the shopping trance. I realized that these items were not rather different at all; in fact, they demonstrated such a lack of creative variety that they suddenly appeared quite the same. I thought about the toilet, and then the shower fixture, and then the sink, and mirror, the light and fan, and all of it together appeared in my mind like every other bathroom of every other person who has a Lowe's within driving distance of their house.

Part of the problem lies with building code, which isn't too different than, say, car design. Just as you can only do so much with a side-mirror or a bumper before you risk driver safety, regulations for plumbing and electricity behind the scene influence aesthetics right in front of you. Certainly color and shape vary, but the stipulations are strict and the freedom, little, especially for the vast majority who can't afford gross distinction. Still, I ask, Why am I limited to few real options? Am I actually limited? And what convinced me to see the array of selections as more different than similar in the first place?

It's like a kind of shopping socialism had taken over and I was suddenly aware of its tight fit.

The project will move forward. It has to. I'm looking forward to problem-solving and installation—activities which make me appreciate being human. But now I feel tied. No matter how I’d like to escape cultural bounds, every member in my family views the world in their own shaped way, which means I can't simply claim the entire vote for what gets installed and what doesn't. I have to consider their aesthetic wishes too.

And even if they agreed to my requests, I'm still left with the effects of social influence. I want what others have. When Lowe's sells a product that I swear I've seen in a wealthy home, I feel drawn to the suggestion of elevated importance. When the cheap items are listed as "Basic" or "Our Most Popular Model," I feel poor and want to be above the tier of consumers who look for those items. (Design doesn't happen in a vacuum, after all.)

But here I am in the aisle, alerted by the trance and asking myself a perplexing question: How would this bathroom look if I could build it outside of the cultural parameters currently guiding my opinions?

I really don't know. Unless I've traveled abroad, or, conversely, grown up in isolation, contrast is hard to find. Innovation is difficult to consider. This fact reminds me of a former Disney employee whose boss said, "We purchased some land, build something." The employee replied, "You mean, like a theme park?" to which his boss replied, "Whatever you'd like." The employee's reaction was limited to what he already knew. He had to be given permission to think beyond it.

I don’t have the money for gross distinction, or even for sliding down the aisle past Basic in most cases. So I want permission. I could go with Our Most Popular Model and let someone else—the entire middle class, in fact—determine how to decorate our home, but I want permission. I feel alive when I create. I feel emboldened, empowered. Human. That's a spirituality I can enjoy—walking in the footsteps of the Creator.  

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David Rupert July 6, 2012 at 11:38 AM  

Sam, I totally get the trance thing when it comes to Hardware stores. There are all kinds of things I think I might need, could need, maybe need, one day some day, any day now.

Consumerism is like that. We dont buy on need, or often even want. We are just zombies in the mall...

Sam Van Eman July 10, 2012 at 11:39 AM  

"Zombies in the mall." I hear that, David.

Deidra July 23, 2012 at 11:39 AM  

It's true. Something happens to my brain when I walk into one of those stores.

That image of digging out dirt on your back in the crawlspace in the dark still gives me the heebie geebies.

Sam Van Eman July 23, 2012 at 10:55 PM  

It should. There are a lot of spiders under there. And by a lot, I mean a lot.

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