Business Beware – Stuff Stinks

Betty Friedan and George Carlin had it right. Friedan observed a problem with no name. Women of the early ‘60s had shiny new gadgets that filled their homes but left their lives empty. Carlin asked, “Have you ever noticed how your shit is stuff and everybody else’s stuff is shit?” We are now at the crossroads of Friedan and Carlin where all stuff is shit.

We have the millennials to thank. They are the cohort born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Its first wave is now sloshing into peak earning years and we baby boomers are learning that they don’t think much of how we did things. It’s a little disconcerting for those of us born between 1946 and 1964 because we have ruled the roost for a long while. Our expiry date, however, is in the rear view mirror. Businesses not adjusting are sinking.

While hearing us enjoy Abbey Road for the millionth time and laugh through M*A*S*H* re-runs yet again, the millennials have been watching. They saw devotion to jobs at the expense of families leave too many families shattered. They saw the work-life balance teeter-totter grounded at down with life delayed until retirement. They saw loyalty to companies betrayed by loyalty unreciprocated. They saw us falter and many fall when the insatiable greed and arrogant maleficence of the 2008 Great Recession stole so much and left shaky all that had been certain. They saw the bad guys win.

They also saw us gather stuff. In fact, they saw us gather so much stuff that we became stuff’s slaves. We went into debt to buy stuff and kept jobs we hated to pay for stuff. We read magazines about stuff and made a leisure activity of going out to look at stuff. The saw us accumulate more and more stuff while measuring ourselves and judging others by stuff’s quantity, quality, and flirty trendiness.

Business Beware - Stuff Stinks


Truth be told, I was never pro-stuff. Three experiences, though, made me anti-stuff. I once enjoyed three weeks in Japan including two days at the home of a very nice family. They asked about a typical Canadian household and, among other things, I explained how our refrigerators were larger, as theirs resembled a bar fridge, and that many homes, including mine, also had a big box freezer. “Why?” the Mom asked, “Are grocery stores far from your home or do you often get frozen in?” She was right. Shortly after returning home we got rid of our freezer.

Second, for years my dear wife owned and ran a successful flower shop. One day I accompanied her to a Toronto trade show. As we strolled into a gigantic warehouse bursting with items for florists to sell I felt gobsmacked. After a few minutes of wide-eyed wandering I whispered, with great respect for the tertiary part of her business, “There is not one thing here that anyone needs.”

Finally, amid mourning the death of a member of my wife’s family and then mine, we witnessed harsh words, hard feelings, and the cutting of wounds yet to heal – and all over the distribution of stuff. I also watched the packing and dumping of a lot of stuff once thought precious.

The three experiences led to a clearing of personal ballast. Trips to the reuse and recycling centre and county dump became causes to uncork a bottle of red. One new thing into our house necessitated two things out. Second hand became better than buying new and the second car was sold. Things are better now but could be better yet. If I won the lottery I would not buy more stuff but hire three strong men and a dumpster for a final purge.

And that brings me back to the millennials. We baby boomers crammed our houses with stuff and then began filling rented storage spaces. A tenth of all Americans now rent storage space – more than any country on earth. Canadians are second. North America now has 2.3 billion square feet of storage space. Think about that – it’s the size of Manhattan! I don’t get it. The millennials don’t get it.

While boomer-led companies continue to market to stuff-addicted baby boomers, millennial-run companies have been starting anti-stuff businesses. Consider Zipcar that rents cars by the hour, allowing more people to get around without ever buying cars. Consider companies that organize the downloading of music and books that allow folks to listen and read without owning books or CDs. Consider Netflix and its clones that are rendering anachronistic owning DVDs. Consider the website that allows people to rent rather than buy power tools that would otherwise spend nearly their entire lifespans gathering dust.

A millennial friend of mine, a professional man, was on to this years ago. One day he told me that he would no longer buy new clothes. Everything he has worn since has come from second-hand stores. We have several neighbours in our little Village that, like him, could easily afford to buy new clothing, but don’t.

How will businesses adjust? Costco, Walmart, and the other Chinese distribution centers are continuing to base business plans on the boomer mentality of buying more than we need, storing it when our homes burst their seams, and then coming back for still more. Home Depot, on the other hand, is now renting tools as well as selling them. Uber allows people without cars to text people who do for a ride. Taxi and car rental companies are screaming at Uber like King Canute thrust his palm to the sea.

Will other companies adjust like Home Depot or invent like Uber? Will more companies understand that disposable income can be spent on only two things: experiences or stuff. Experiences enrich and stay with us forever. Stuff inevitably wears out, is thrown out, or argued over. Will more companies sell reading and not books, or music and not CDs, or transportation and not cars? Will more companies sell experiences to millennials eager to do without the latest stuff in order to enjoy life with someone they love rather than buying stuff to impress people they don’t.

So I offer an insincere apology to the old school businesses and, for that matter, to the entire consumer-driven economy that need me to keep buying stuff. I’m not going to do it. The millennials are not going to do it either. Something has to give and changes need to be made. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m off to gather more stuff to throw away.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others through your social media of choice, consider commenting, or even following my weekly blog. And for baby boomers – check out what Paul McCartney says about this:

Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society but books and music are the best evidence that the civilization is thriving. Let’s leave books aside for the moment and consider music. People far smarter than me have failed to determine exactly why music is so pleasurable. It can be a hot bath or a cold shower, a dose of valium or a hit of Red Bull; music can be stimulating, irritating, compensating and luxuriating.

If the best way to experience music is to play it with others then the second best is to experience it with others. A concert is a visual, auditory, sociological carnival. The difference between a concert and a recording is like between a movie and a play. The concert is immediate, existing only in the moment, and enjoyed in the dark with others. There is danger because mistakes can be made. It is enthralling because art is being created right before your eyes. It is art that will exist only for an instant and then be gone forever.

I have experienced a lot of concerts and will not bore you with the entire list. A few I’ve enjoyed include Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, John Hiatt, Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Phish, Bare Naked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Chicago, Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson and on and on.

Many concerts have disappointed. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in his prime but left wondering if he really wanted to be there. I saw B. B. King and Chuck Berry when their primes were in the rear view mirror. King rambled rather than played and twice during solos that he clumsily threw to his pick-up band Berry forgot what song he was singing.

Some concerts have delighted me. Bruce Springsteen was, well, he was Bruce for over three hours, outdoors, blasting into the summer breeze rock n roll played by grown men. All three Paul McCartney concerts left me amazed with the man’s energy, talent and catalogue. The first time I saw Elvis Presley I was thrilled by the musicianship of his band, his energy and charisma, and the power of his voice that in a couple ballads and gospel numbers seemed to shake the arena.


Elvis in Niagara Falls, New York in 1975

I was once in Nashville. Arriving early to see Jerry Lee Lewis I found myself in a tiny, chicken BBQ juke-joint. I was told that the concert was out back and so walked through a small door and into a large parking lot with a thousand stacked-up folding chairs and a stage at one end. I pulled a steel chair from the pile, placed it in what would become the front row and a twelve-year-old boy offered to guard it for a dollar.  I returned an hour later to find the place packed and the boy good to his word. Lewis was terrific. He explained that when his career collapsed in scandal that the owner of the place was one of the few who would hire him and so he performed once a year to return the favour.

The best concerts are those that surprise me. One year at the Mariposa Folk Festival, back when it was on Toronto Island, we heard a deep baritone coming from a small stage. We spread our blanket and were captivated by the voice, songs and stories of Stan Rogers. Another Mariposa festival ended with John Prine. The brilliance of lyrics that combined humour, insight and bathos was magnificent and to top off a perfect show he was joined by his pal Steve Goodman. They played Souvenirs and Paradise and seemed lost in the joy of the songs, the crowd, and each other’s company. Music’s ability to unite strangers was evident with the sound (and aroma) of hundreds of us singing Paradise over and over again on the ferry back to the city.

Paul Simon’s Graceland tour was a special moment in cultural, political and musical history. Maple Leaf Gardens was an awful place to see a concert. I had seen the Good Brothers there and Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond and everyone always suffered the bad sight-lines and worse sound. That rainy night it did not matter. Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid appeared invincible. But Lady Smith Black Mambazo danced with moves and rhythms that shocked and enchanted. They and others sang of their homeland sometimes in words we could not comprehend but with an emotional commitment that could not be denied. Simon was great but almost an afterthought as the singers, musicians and music of a country in pain beguiled us with a joyous spirit of undiminished hope.

Image Lady Smith Black Mambazo

The most surprising concert of all, and therefore my favorite, was close to home. The Pines is gone now. For generations it was an institution. The Pines was a smoke-smelling, falling-down, big box of a building just outside of my hometown that harkened back to the honkey tonks of the American south. At least, that’s what Ronnie Hawkins said one night as he led his band through old rock-a-billy songs while sipping vodka and orange juice from a beer pitcher.

Superman Song was on the radio at the time. It was funny and mournful. It was hopeful and sad. It spoke of Superman’s funeral, attended by his old superhero pals who were in awe of his life’s work but understood a man who felt unappreciated, unrewarded, and with an immigrant’s sense of homelessness. The band was called the Crash Test Dummies. The singer, Brad Roberts, sang so low and with a tone so melancholy that it suggested the voice of Methuselah; or maybe of God Himself. We bought tickets based on that one song.

Our surprising night began with the opening act. Lennie Gallant is from PEI and at that point had just recorded his first album. He had borrowed sound equipment from a friend; it was all stamped Rita McNeil. His voice was strong, his band was stronger and his songs were stronger still. They had catchy hooks, clever changes and lyrics that actually said something of life’s challenges and love’s trials and of a region of the country where there is a constant battle between hope, fear and fun. Every song was better than the last. At one point he sang a ballad of the sea, accompanying himself on an Irish bodran.  The night could have ended there, but then it got even better.

Image Lennie Gallant

The Crash Test Dummies exuded the perfect balance of show biz swagger and Canadian modesty. Roberts was obviously the leader and his voice the star. The harmony vocals of Ellen Reid were angelic. Her sarcastic banter and sly smile kept Roberts humble. Roberts introduced the band that included his older brother who he said was behind him and to the left but was smarter, more talented, better looking and more popular with women but still, he reminded us, behind him and to the left.

The songs were ingenious without being glib. The melodies were like all well-crafted songs in that they were fresh but instantly memorable and stirred an inkling that I’d had heard them before. Each offered a new perspective on an old idea. Each used interesting metaphors and offered unpredictable patterns and breaks, rhythms and instrumentation. Unlike some bands, no one showed off. They seemed to remember that when the songs are strong they will do the work; no one overpowered the songs or each other. You could see them playing for us but listening to each other and enjoying themselves; that’s why they call it playing. They sang their whole debut album and the Superman Song twice.

Image Crash Test Dummies

It was the best concert ever because I went expecting nothing and was surprised by everything. It was the music, the players, crowd, the venue, and those I was with – it was perfect. Canada has incredible musical talent. I’ve enjoyed concerts by Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies, Randy Bachman, Serena Ryder, Royal Wood, April Wine, the Guess Who, Cowboy Junkies, Valdy, Murray McLaughlin, Blackie and Rodeo Kings and many more but I always kind of knew what to expect. But that night at the Pines, way back in 1991 took me by surprise and left me dazzled. The Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – the best concert ever.

    Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

  1. Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – 1991
  2. Paul Simon – Graceland – 1986
  3. Bruce Springsteen – 2013
  4. Elvis Presley – 1975
  5. Paul McCartney – 2002