Too occupied to occupy

Forward:  I have a few hundred words to share my own “funny story, good advice” with the blogosphere. But I’m using up the first 50 to  explain how I was too busy to read the “guest post” requirements and altogether missed the “funny” bit. So what you’re gettin’ is a somewhat funny, more so exasperating blog post with a tad o’ good advice.

…But feel free to laugh at the part where I get yelled at by a cop.


When the whole Occupy Wall Street movement started back in September, I was intrigued by what I gathered was some kind of spontaneous protest against banks and big finance.

Eventually, media coverage of activists with their protest signs stirred pangs of nostalgia for old school days when we’d debate globalization over beers—we questioned each other endlessly. Then, in 2001, we went to Quebec City, and questioned everything.

[Then we went back to school. We graduated. We got jobs.]

By October 2011, tens of thousands of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators were staging rallies in 900 cities around the world. This was no Quebec City. What was it??

I meant to read all those articles with the catchy titles. “Occupy Wall Street: The Most important thing in the world now!” I saved every one. I meant to read them.

On the last day of our fun fall trip to New York City we even meandered down to see the real deal; but Zuccotti Park, was as jam-packed with information as tents. I knew so little about the movement, I felt like a guilty voyeur joining them for just an hour…

Back here in the nation’s capital, I’d bike past Confederation Park every work day and think: ‘as soon as work slows down I’m going to stop by on my lunch breaks and see what’s up.’ …I was working on a big event at work—“The November 22nd event”—and after that I’d have waaay more time on my hands.

November finally rolled around. It got colder and I stopped riding my bike. I could still see the colourful tent tops through the steamy bus windows though… I knew the people were there. As soon as November 22nd passed, I’d head over…

The news coverage on Occupy had also turned cold. Even seemingly-would-be-supporters-and progressives were denigrating the movement and dismissing it s “vague,” “unorganized,” “uninformed” and even irrational. I was all at once super peeved and disappointed and even more fired up to contribute in some way, shape or form. I spent my bus rides stewing in solidarity.

I may not have done much reading or analysis of Occupy Wall Street, but I felt I knew enough to know it wasn’t a bad thing and it sure wasn’t meant to be all about the protesters—their hippyness, their “envy” of the rich or their “hypocrisy.” Maybe it wasn’t even a protest at all. Zuccotti Park had felt more like an open space—bringing together people who just wanted to create change. I don’t think they care what the rest of the world thinks they’re about, or should be about. They just want something different.

And so did I. But I missed it.

From the Ottawa Citizen news, November 23, 2011: “At about 2a.m. ET police moved in on Occupy Ottawa in Confederation Park to enforce the eviction issued by the landowner, the National Capital commission…”

As I stood at the edge of the park wondering if there might be some thing, or someone left on the inside, I was approached by an officer, “Move along please, you don’t want to be here.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”   -Martin Luther King Jr.

So I guess my advice is to think about the things that matter to you and start doing something now. Not tomorrow when you may or may not have more free time, but now, with the time and the energy that you do have.

And also, that change is possible if we don’t give up. I read that the Civil Rights Movement proceeded for decades before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955, and then it took another nine years for federal civil rights bills to pass. Physically occupying parks long-term isn’t really sustainable, but it’s brought attention to the huge inequality between the wealthiest 1% and the rest. This is a moment is history that may not be repeated for generations—let’s not give up.


This post will appear on my friend Josh Martin’s wonderful blog on Life Lessons.

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We made the press!

I’ve been meaning to post this FOREVER (since it was published in early February).

It’s a story about our year of buying nothing new!  My good friend Lex (Alexa Carson) prompted us to take, or re-take this whole buy-nothing new challenge on New Year’s day–and this is her take on it. I think it’s great.  (And I’m sooo pumped to help her celebrate her fall wedding by focusing on the GOOD stuff …not all that other STUFF.)

Woot woot!   

Consumption cut: Relying on second-hand, handmade or borrowed items for one year
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Alexa Carson’s new dining room table spent no time in a furniture warehouse, did not come with a single sundry screw or assembly instruction, and did not even bear a shipping label when it was delivered to her house.

The table — hand-crafted from an ash tree in an Ontario forest — was both made and delivered by Carson’s father-in-law and now occupies a place of pride in her Toronto home.

For the 32-year-old program manager, it represents a milestone in her quest to buy nothing new in 2011. The fact that she can obtain a “beautiful” piece of furniture without setting foot in a store or throwing out a shipping box validates her belief that life can be lived more simply, she said.

“It’s handmade and sustainable (the table is from reclaimed wood), and because of this and the knowledge that someone we love made it just for us, it is 1,000 times more valuable than anything we could ever buy at a store,” Carson said. “It will last longer than a cheaply made Ikea table.”

Though construction on the table began months before Carson vowed to buy nothing new for a whole year, the acquisition fit in perfectly with her new mission. Carson has committed to limiting her purchases for all of 2011, relying on second-hand, handmade or borrowed items to fulfil her few needs.

She has found two willing friends to join her, saying all believe their lives are overrun with material possessions.

“This isn’t about being really frugal or saving money, it’s about being conscious of the accumulation of stuff on our planet and trying not to contribute to that,” she said. “We really believe that anything we truly need already exists, so we can borrow it or buy second-hand.”

Kira Petersson-Martin shares the philosophy so passionately espoused by Carson and her friends.

The 26-year-old single mother from St. John’s, N.L., said the environmental repercussions of a consumerist culture prompted her to swear off new purchases for 2011, adding the experiment may also set a strong example for her four-year-old daughter.

“I work really hard with (my daughter) to get her to realize where food comes from. ‘Do the vegetables come from Mexico? What is the cost of that?'” Petersson-Martin said.

“Extending that to material things like toys and clothes, that’s something I look forward to being able to discuss with her. When I was little and I would ask for things, my Mom would say, `We don’t have the money.’ I don’t want to push that message. I want her to ask, “Do I need this?'”

Kate Tilleczek, Canada Research Chair in Child/Youth Cultures and Transitions, said Carson and Petersson-Martin embody a set of values that is of increasing importance to Canadian youth.

Research suggests environmentalism is a key concern among young people, she said, adding people in their teens and early 20s are overwhelmingly supportive of political movements such as the Green Party.

The plan to buy nothing new is an effective form of social protest called “culture jamming,” prompted by a natural aversion to the way society functions, she said.

“Young people’s status and identity is more tied to consumerist stuff than pretty much any phase of adulthood,” Tilleczek said from her office at the University of Prince Edward Island.

“They’re really status and commodity driven because of the social organization of what we’re allowing them to do. These young women are working in a long historical tradition of social resistance to things in society that are problematic and that they can see.”

Carson and Petersson-Martin have established nearly identical guidelines for their “buy nothing” years.”

Both have committed to shun purchases of new clothing, cosmetics, electronics, housewares and other items that could be obtained second-hand. Exceptions are made for certain items, such as food, basic toiletries and underwear.

Carson is willing to make exceptions for emergency expenses, while Petersson-Martin made a concession in the name of sanitation and acquired a litter box for the kitten she rescued last month.

Both acknowledge the experiment makes demands of their time and creative powers. Carson said her full-time work schedule hasn’t left her with the time to touch up the lining of her winter boots, while Petersson-Martin said she likely wouldn’t be able to succeed without the luxury of a flexible student timetable.

Some people don’t have time to go to Value Village or look around on Craigslist to find what they need,” she said. “I don’t want to sound prescriptive and say that this is something that everyone should do.”

Despite the odd temptation presented by a pair of boots or chairs to complement her new dining room table, Carson said the experiment has been a positive, liberating experience.

“When you’re really trying to keep what you consider your needs down, you appreciate what you already have and how few material things you actually need.”

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What happened in Mexico…

“What happened in Mexico…                                                                                                    always happens to me when I’m in Mexico.”

I saw this on a T-shirt in Mexico last month, I don’t even know what it means but it sure made me laugh. And when it comes to me and Mexican knick knacks, it’s totally true. PADDY-WHACKED every time!  
First off, to resolutely resolve any unresolved issues regarding my Buy-Nothing-New resolution, may I direct you to point 4.0 of my original “List of Exceptions.” This trip was totally on the list. It’s not like I didn’t see this coming…  

It’s weird how I have no desire to shop at IKEA but I’ll drive, fly, bus and haul home heaps of stuff from Mexico. Ceramic Mexican sinks, pottered water bottle holders, mosaic mirrors, hammocks and hanging chairs, crates of clay plates, bowls, towel holders and door knobs and a bajillion pounds of Mexican tile. And I’m not sure what’s worse, the fact that I’ve bought all these things over the past decade or the fact that nearly every piece is stowed away in dark and dank corners of storage facilities all across this province—from Granny’s basement, to uncle Bill’s barn, to our rental garage in Val Rita, and the house we rent out in west Toronto.

I’m a globalized magpie. I know it. But I can’t help myself.

Partly I believe it’s OK to buy stuff if I buy it from the people who actually made it …or act like they could have made it, or say they’re even distantly related to someone who used to make it… So on this recent trip to the gringo land that is Porty Vallardy, Mexico I spent heaps of time scouting out those one-of-a-kind Mexican finds that are total awesomeness—things I could never get at home—things that Ellia and the “next five of our friends who have babies’” babies are going to love and keep forever.

Like this jingle-jangle horsey toy:

This turtle toy(s):

And this embroidered dress (x4):

I got right into it—I was SPENDING my way to a SUSTAINABLE world!  By week three I had unique little treasures squirreled away at tiendas and market stalls all over town.

But then three problemos happened:  Uno, my husband. Dos, my brother. Tres, his wife.  I was living with these people, and not only do they each have a conscience, but they’re into social justice and they talk about this stuff …A LOT!  

Sure enough, this concept of “ethical consumerism” is something of an oxymoron. Just look up “consume” in the dictionary, it only means bad stuff ‘…to destroy, cause to vanish, or use up’. And then it sorta killed my buyer-buzz to be thinking about all the “unpaid costs” that came with my cheap finds …Like how the nice señora who made those little turtles also uprooted herself and kids from their home state of Chiapas in pursuit of bikini-clad tourist dollars a cultural world away…

It’s not like it would have been better to buy nothing at all from the señoras, but I needed a reminder that even supporting local hand-made—just like buying fair trade, or sweat-shop free—isn’t really fixing things for most poor people.

Even though we hear people like Bono (ever the willing spokesperson for poverty-related causes) saying that “shopping is politics” and “you vote every time you spend money”—there seems to be a fatal flaw in thinking that we can, or should, use our consumer power to bring about change. What happens if you’re NOT a consumer at all—if you’re thrifty or poor and you don’t buy stuff, are you are excluded from changing the world? And the same goes for rich countries—if shopping is politics, then the rich and privileged are totally hogging all the votes.

So there you have it. My feel-good Mexican shopping spree was a bit of a bust. Of course, buying more sustainable versions of the things I actually needed was OK’d, but this meant having to justify which things were more than just things I really wanted. And that left me with the horsey toy for Ellia’s 1st Birthday, a turtle for cousin Pontiac’s missed Birthday, and one dress for each for Granny’s summer memorial. (Friends with babies, watch your mail.)

And I’m back to believing that sometimes my most ethical shopping choice will be to buy nothing at all; to embrace the idea that less can be more. But no one is telling us this. Not NGOs, not government, business or the media. So if I remind YOU now, will you remind ME the next time I’m in Mexico?

 I wish we didn’t live in a world where buying and selling things seems to have become almost more important than either producing or using them.                          – C S Lewis (1898-1963)


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Isn’t it ironic?

I admit it. Ever since that whole “Alanis’ song IRONIC doesn’t have a single ironic lyric, which means the whole song IS ironically, ironical” fiasco I am somewhat/altogether confused about the meaning of irony. (..And let me save you Gen X ladies some google time: No, Ethan Hawke does not clear this up for Lelaine at all!)  

So tell me, isn’t this ironic. ..Don’tcha think?

Excerpts from my email correspondence with the indy enviro film company Bullfrog:

Hi there, 
I am looking for two films which aired on PBS, called AFFLUENZA and ESCAPE FROM AFFLUENZA.  Are they available for viewing anywhere online (I would pay, of course), or for rent on DVD?  I would really rather not buy them in hard copy, but would love to see the films.                                      
Thanks so much!
Tara from Ottawa, Canada 
Dear Tara, 
Thank you for your email – Bullfrog Films is the distributor of both AFFLUENZA and ESCAPE FROM AFFLUENZA, and they are not available online, as far as I know.  Please let me know your intended use for the films and I will be able to give you an accurate quote.
I look forward to your reply,
[Bullfrog employee]
Hi again,
I am just a mom home on Maternity Leave who has decided to buy nothing new in 2011 (hence not wanting to buy 2 films about not buying stuff 🙂 ) and I thought these films would be great inspiration for me and my family. I don’t intend to use them anywhere outside the home. 
Thanks so much, Tara
P.S. Do they ever replay on PBS?
Hi Tara,
Thank you for the reply.  The two films you are interested in are available for home viewing for $29.95 each.  (We do not have access to the PBS schedule but you should be able to get this from your local PBS station.)   The total price is $59.50 for both films.  Please add $11.00 shipping and handling to Canada via first class international mail.
We accept MasterCard or VISA for Canadian orders.  You may place an order via telephone, fax, email, or online.                      Sincerely,                                                                                                                                                                                 [Bullfrog employee]

Now, my husband warns me not to be too snarky or down on PBS. We totally love PBS and I get that they need support, as do companies like Bullfrog, I’m sure. But I also think that while this example isn’t as blatantly off as say, spray painting “stop pollution” on trees—and I get it that wicked books like “No Logo” still have to have a book jacket and sell in Chapters to get the good word out—but …isn’t there a but here? At what point do we have to start paying more attention to these small but real contradictions? 

Maybe Alanis can help.  OK so all those things she was singing about—like “rain on your wedding day”—those things are all just …well, bummers. But say you were engaged to marry a weatherman and he picked the date!  Now that seems like more than just a bummer.  And say you’re trying to find a way to watch a TV special called AFFLUENZA  about the “high social and environmental costs of materialism and overconsumption” and the only way you can find to do that is to buy those shows on DVD, charge them by credit card and have them shipped across the continent ..isn’t that more than a bummer too? 

Isn’t it ironic? And yeah, I really do think.


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Why I buy stuff

Just before Christmas we found our dream house—a fire sale on a lovely old-fashioned home with a wood stove, wrap-around porch, lofty pines and landscaped gardens, just steps from the river, parks and the bike path. We didn’t buy it. The place was too small.

Maybe I should have titled this blog post “why I don’t buy stuff”. These two questions keep getting jumbled together in my head, but I digress.

We rationalized that the house, at under 1000 square feet would need an addition soon if we were to expand our family, and we weren’t keen on a big reno.

Yet something about our decision nagged at me—the house had felt so right, so calm, and so …simple. So, I start to experience something resembling regret. That house had every single element we needed—and it was beautiful. Was it just that we had wanted something more?    


Determined to wiki my way to internal resolution I start in on some research.

I learn that the average size of a family home is 900 square feet—in the 1950s. Turns out, in today’s world this is about the size of a three-car garage. I think about how that extra garage space is probably used for storing equipment and other stuff… Ugh. I start to feel a little more sick in the gut. Then I read about this lady and her very happy life in her house of 84 square feet. I call back the agent.

“Yes, the house has definitely sold.”

He signs me up for e-notices of house sales. But all I get are postings for big, modern places in the suburbs—some of which are still in the floor plan stages. …And I’m left with a big fat question about how I make my decisions about any/all the stuff I buy.

I keep coming across this quote by financial guy David Ramsey:

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t really like.”

Hmm, sorta harsh. But it’s true that the few times in the past month that I’ve found myself wanting to go shopping (not even for anything specific) had more to do with my mental state than a need for anything in particular. And when I think back to times in my life when I was really into shopping, I realize that it was in those teen and early university years when I wasn’t so sure of myself and more concerned about fitting in and what others thought. I think I measured myself a little by what I owned—sometimes throwing money away on objects to give myself a boost. It seems I shopped alot out of stress, anxiety or boredom …buying things instead of doing things.

But even now, knowing all this, it can be hard. And I’m a bit worried that since I’ve started this ‘buy nothing new’ year, I’ve had so many people (mostly women) tell me, “Oh I could NEVER do THAT!” The shopping we’re talking about—the extras, the indulgences, the things we either have already or don’t need in the first place—should be easy to walk away from. But why isn’t it?

Maybe because we live in a culture where shopping is sold as a means of self expression, and where having it all—even if you don’t have room for it all—is a pretty big measure of success.

I find this quote more inspiring,

“Own nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” -artist William Morris

And I realize that overall it has been a freeing experience to NOT spend money. I am outside alot and really enjoying swapping mall walks for river walks.

And in my closet and in my home and in my life I’m realizing that less really IS more—that it’s way more fun focusing on being and doing than having and wanting. I love all my new found free time! Free money!

So maybe it is time to buy that small beauty of a house and stop shopping.


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Who’s afraid of the big bed bug?

In 2011 if I can’t buy new I’ll buy old. And failing that, I’ll just take stuff.

For years when asked that classic summer job interview question, “So, Tara what do you do in your spare time?” I’d default to honest and respond “garage sale.” It really was true.

At the time, I lived in downtown Toronto and drove a little old pickup truck. It was any yard sale addict’s dream scenario! Every Saturday morning I’d set out with my mug of Cherry Bomb coffee and my wish list in my pocket—give or take the odd string, cut to the width or length of the picture frame or curtains I needed, or little scrap of paper scrawled with a friend’s request… Dirty Dancing (VHS is OK). Rotary phone. Good power tools (NOT Job Mate). Ahh, the thrill of the hunt…

Alas, now I live in Ottawa. I have a baby. We drive a sedan. Not one of these truths bodes well for keeping up my favorite pastime.

So I’m a converted curb cruising dumpster diver. On my long and meandering walks with baby, I often scour the sidewalks for treasures; and when I see something I like, I drag it out of sight and return with the hubby (and the sedan) after dark.

Just two things to note here. One is about me: I got over ‘second hand phobia’ and the fear of bedbuggies by rationalizing that restaurants and hotels serve us from second hand cutlery and second hand sheets every day, and they actually charge for this. The other is about you: maybe please try to avoid putting your good stuff out on the curb in the rain two hours before garbage pick-up, where I, and other thrifties have ZERO chance of salvaging it. And if you could try to label your stuff—especially if it HAS come down with a dreaded case of “the bugs”—that’d be great.

A friend in New York city actually uses and disperses wicked awesome tags for this very purpose:

The Curbside Object Status Tag purports to “facilitate the smooth operating of the informal sidewalk gift economy…”

I concur. (Though duct tape and a magic marker would do just fine.)

P.S. Anyone planning to put a baby ski pulk curbside? Send me your address.   


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Old is the new new

First, a summary of my life as a blogger…                                                                              This is my first blog. Before today, you’d say blog and I’d hear “blaw-g.” I thought blogs, bloggers and blogging were for techy nerds, the outraged, gardeners, gossipers or vane braggy types. Then I read some blogs. Turns out the term “professional blogger” is not an oxymoron. Some people are really good bloggers; and people say good blogs can spread important information, act as a check on monopoly mainstream media and help support a culture of change. So I’m into it. Just. Like. That.  

In 2011 I’m going to NOT buy new stuff and I’m going to blog about it. Not all about it—just how I’m doing it, the upsides, the majorly hard parts and all the cheating in between.

The last time I did this it turned me right off shopping for years. But then in 2010, I had a baby and developed the itch to buy baby crap. So I need to take a mulligan …give myself a non-shop booster shot.

Old is the new new!                                                                                                                          Buying nothing new doesn’t mean doing without. I’ll beg, barter, swap or buy whatever I need, as long as it’s pre-loved. Nothing new.

Here’s my Personal List of Exceptions

  1. food & drink
  2. medicines & hygiene 
  3. family outings & travel
  4. a few Mexican treasures (don’t get mad, I’ll explain later)

Just 353 non-shopping days to go until Christmas…


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