Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Spring has come to Birdland, bringing sunshine colored Daffodils and Jonquils, tiny scarlet maple blossoms, and chores, chores, chores. The other day my vacuum cleaner made the noise you never want to hear in the middle of spring cleaning: a sudden switch from an even roar to a high-pitched whine. I didn’t hear it myself. I vacuum with my hearing aids turned off. No need to waste batteries and hearing to amplify industrial noises. The kids flagged me down. I switched the vacuum off and my hearing aids on. They told me about the noise. I hadn’t noticed any drop in suction, but just then I caught the slight scent of an electrical burning.

My vacuum is an ancient Electrolux. It’s very similar to the vacuum cleaner my mother inherited from her mother when Nanny got her new Hoover. It may even be the same model. It doesn’t have any fancy features, but that’s okay because we don’t have carpets. A few years back I tricked it out with an extra long cord and a new hose. When the wheels fell off I attached Ellis’ old skateboard wheels. This electrical burning was bad news. It was time to visit a repair shop.

When I told my sister I planned to take it in to Byers Vacuum Sales and Service, she seemed surprised. “How does that guy stay in business?” she asked. “I would think most people would just go to Wall-Mall and buy a new one.” This, of course gave me the perfect opening for yet another diatribe on our modern consumerism, fueled by an article I recently read by Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, from In These Times. She could have written one of my usual rants, but she introduced me to whole new vocabulary: “Slow Consumption,” the name of her article—a play on “slow food,” which I took to mean consuming with intention, responsibility, and consideration: “heirloom design,” a built in (or designed-in, rather) antidote to disposable consumption and planned obsolescence, “heirloom design” refers to products that are carefully built to last and easy to repair and upgrade. (Bloyd-Peshkin credits Tim Cooper for “Slow Consumption” and Saul Griffith for “heirloom design.”) All this reminds me of the Arts and Crafts Movement and artists like William Morris and Antonio Gaudi who saw workers in a holistic relationship with their communities. Shouldn’t work nurture the worker as well as produce quality goods and services? Would you feel better creating a solid, quality product (whether a piece of furniture, a loaf of bread, a computer printer, or a vacuum cleaner) or a mass-produced, cheap, throwaway item for consumption that someone will use briefly before tossing in the landfill? Instead of endlessly chasing after more jobs to fuel the economy, which too often means dreaming up new “thneeds” (Dr. Suess’ “Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”) What if we slow down, take a breath, evaluate what we really do need to nurture a community, and then teach people the skills to produce those goods and services? What if we pay people fairly for this labor, share knowledge and expertise, and build products for the long haul?

Bloyd-Peshkin also talked about replacing the “burden of ownership” of some items with sharing or renting them. Once I was visiting my friend, Nancy, when a man burst into her kitchen door with a laundry basket under one arm. I was startled, but she quickly introduced me to her neighbor. “We share a washer and dryer,” she explained. “No need to have two sets.” This arrangement not only saves money and the resources to build laundry facilities, but encourages regular neighborly interactions.

I took my vacuum in to the repair shop. For good measure I brought in a broken hand-held vacuum that had been sitting in the barn for years. The friendly repairman sold me a $3 belt for the hand-held, and patiently showed me how to put it in, offering suggestions for the seized up brush and a history lesson in the manufacture of this specific model. He told me he could put it in for me, but it seemed a pity to charge me the minimum for such a small job. Then he examined my Electrolux. He thought he might have to replace the motor. In the end he was able to fix it for $77, including fixing the broken handle and adding a used screw somewhere that I didn’t even realize was missing. “Here you go,” he said. “Maybe it will last your family another fifty years.”

Work in Beauty; Walk in Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in how good work can nurture the worker and the community. Birdland has a fan page on Facebook.

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