April 25, 2015

Pop Culture Decluttering: A Simpler Plan


Anyone who moves into a new house knows that feeling. You have the luxury of space that was never possible in a small apartment. It’s amazing, but this bliss is short-lived. Little by little, the stuff
accumulates. The closets and cabinets fill up, and boxes conquer the basement. It only takes a few years to transform a serene haven into a frustrating mess. You aren’t ready to go on Hoarders, but the clutter can increase the stress in your busy lives. There’s an entire industry built on saving us from ourselves. Books and online articles with titles like “10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home” draw heaps of attention. It’s a fixable problem, but choosing to make the time and solve it isn’t easy.

We’re currently following this process at our house after living there for seven years. It’s been rewarding to eliminate stuff that has just occupied space for a long time. This process has led me to undertake a similar project with pop culture. When you write a blog about film and TV, it creates a drive to stay on top of everything. You’re essentially fighting a war on multiple fronts. New movies and shows arrive each week, and thousands of worthy titles from the past remain unseen. This push to cover all the bases can lead to amazing discoveries. It’s more likely to create an overwhelming sense of failure, however. The constant noise builds to a dilemma where there aren’t enough hours in the day to even scratch the surface.

The problems I cite are definite first-world problems. The technology that makes all this content available is incredible. Can't we just enjoy the ride? That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly that simple. Maintaining a work/life balance is a major challenge for nearly everyone. For pop-culture obsessives, there’s another layer of obstacles. Even in a mid-size city like St. Louis, interesting cultural events happen nearly every night. When you add those concerts and film screenings to DVR and Netflix backlogs at home, it’s quite a pile. Books, podcasts, and magazines also scream for attention. Intellectual curiosity is a great thing, but it can lead to disappointments.

The library is an amazing resource, but it can almost be too much of a good thing. 
It’s thrilling to discover a lesser-known movie or band that blows you away. I haven’t given up that pursuit but have simplified the approach to getting there. In a similar way to decluttering a house, I’ve developed a more linear approach to pop culture. If I’m watching the fourth season of Game of Thrones, I should finish it before tackling five other shows. I borrow DVDs regularly from the library, and they’re usually available for a week. Taking out five at once makes no sense; it’s a waste of mental and physical energy. Having a stack of unread books waiting on the shelf also just leads to disappointment. This approach has helped me to focus on what really excites me.

Before continuing, I should clarify my positions a bit further. This isn’t a manifesto that everyone should follow; it’s more of a personal mission statement. Some film bloggers watch 400-500 films in a year and write about most of them. I marvel at their dedication and love the idea of their singular passion. It takes resilience for even the most ardent cinephile to follow that schedule. Most are not writing about films as a full-time job, so this quantity is mind-boggling. I’m not criticizing those achievements. What I’m seeking is the right amount of material that fits within my life.

"You know that Shakespearean admonition, 'To thine own self be true'? It's premised on the idea that 'thine own self' is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if 'thine own self' is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?" - Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), The Last Days of Disco

Having an obsessive personality makes it even more challenging to lessen the pace. When I'm asked to appear on a podcast or write for another site, my first inclination is to say yes. It's a challenge to recognize my limitations even when the opportunities sound enticing. It's only when I think about all the different obligations that I realize the flaws. Last fall, I decided to try and post every day on this blog. I wrote during lunch breaks and pushed myself to expand the audience. It wasn't a satisfying experience. Writing became less fun, and that frustration showed in the final product.

Life changes, and that's okay.
Another factor is my current place in life. I’m 39, married, and have two amazing daughters (6 and 2). When I was 23, paring down my pop-culture activities would have sounded ludicrous. I gathered heaps of DVDs, CDs, and books to consume down the road. Life changes, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that being excited about pop culture is immature. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece on “Appreciation vs. Obsessive Consumption”. I’d been writing this blog for a year and was battling the push to see everything. Three years later, I’m building on that premise with my life. I’m asking “what do I really love doing?” and focusing on those activities. Writing is on the list but not as high as it once was. After sitting in an office all day, spending my nights in front of a screen feels restrictive. Playing tennis, taking a swim, or going for a walk often beats turning on the computer or TV.

It's important to recognize the opportunity cost for any decision. If I decide to play tennis on a weekday evening, that activity replaces another option like watching a movie. Leisure time is a wonderful thing, but there isn't an infinite supply. The amount of hours is the same, and we can't have it all. Pop culture decluttering allows me to recognize the most rewarding use of my time. The wealth of options sometimes makes the process feel like work, particularly for bloggers. Even if we love writing and running our sites, it's easy to start treating them like a painful chore.

This is just a small portion of our collection, but it would take months to watch it all.
While I’m focusing on habits, there is also a physical aspect to these decluttering goals. My DVD and Blu-ray collection isn’t as robust as some film fans, but it does contain unnecessary copies. For example, I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train multiple times. It’s a great movie, but I don’t have plans to revisit it anytime soon. When I’m ready to re-watch that film, locating it will be easy. I cite this example because it isn’t a bad movie that’s easy to eliminate. It reveals the limits of needing such a large collection. It’s like the Seinfeld question where Jerry asks George about why he keeps so many books. If I’m not planning to watch the movie, is it just a prop to show off to visitors?

This project is going very well; I’m enjoying the experience more and not getting stuck in old patterns. There is a lingering question that hangs over these changes, however. How do I still write a film blog when I’m less absorbed in the medium every day? If I’m not as engaged by writing movie reviews, what do I write about here? It’s possible that this site has run its course, and that’s okay. I started Public Transportation Snob as a writing project and way to dig into unexplored corners of the movie world. My interests don’t seem to fit with that model anymore. I’m still in the midst of my pop culture decluttering, so where I land may determine the site’s future. For the moment, I’ll continue this journey wherever it goes.

18 comments:

  1. Thought-provoking article Dan. I agree clutter can increase stress. Definitely feels good throwing unneeded stuff out! Like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. You're right that it's near impossible to keep up with pop culture and watch all the classics as well, so being selective is the way I guess. I think many people deal today with information overload and fear of missing out( FoMO), myself included. Totally understandable with a familiy and other hobbies you want to focus on them, and give less time to writing about film. Good luck with your future plans

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chris. I've definitely faced my share of FoMO and admit that it isn't completely gone. I'm just trying to find a better balance, and it's working out so far! We'll see how it goes...

      Delete
  2. Another excellently written and well thought out post, Dan. Throughout my own life, I'm a little older than you, there was always something I was collecting. It started with baseball cards. Baseball cards became comic books then CDs then DVDs. I never thought of myself as collecting books, but buying one or two here and there over the years and I've accumulated a good number of those, too. Pretty much stopped collecting, finally, having bought only a handful of movies over the last couple years. But the clutter is still there. One the one hand, it's great that I can watch The Godfather trilogy anytime I want. On the other, how many times is that going to be? Not all that often, when you figure in all the movies in my own collection I've never seen and the quest to see lots of new stuff. In short, I know exactly where you're coming from and deal with the same frustrations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also had a lot of baseball cards growing up, and I couldn't even give them away a few years ago when I tried. So much effort! It is nice to have some favorite movies at home, and I'm not completely removing everything. I'm just trying to not keep accumulating stuff, along with not going overboard trying to see everything. It should be easier than it is.

      Delete
  3. My wife and I have been talking about attempting a similar approach to simplifying our life. The CD's which we no longer listened to will be the first to go this summer. I also agree that they library is a great but deadly resource. Despite having unopened DVDs at home, I still find myself bring home films from the library to watch.

    Decluttering will be a tough process to stick with, the desire to horde things is just too great, but we are determined to see it through.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't considered pulling back from the library until recently. I'm still going there but pared down my lists of requests to the bare minimum. It was just getting ridiculous. Good luck with your project. We still have a lot of things, but it's been great to at least remove a layer. I've also uncovered some great things that I forgot I even had!

      Delete
  4. It's an interesting idea, but it's also something I refuse to do with my DVDs. It's one of the few things that I genuinely feel a pride of ownership in--I like the idea of creating an eclectic, interesting film collection. I've bought DVDs that I may never watch (the three-disc set of The Ten Commandments comes to mind) because...I like having it.

    Other possessions I'm happy to start discarding, but the movies are something different, in part because I use my collection as something of a lending library as well. I like the ability to introduce people to films, to hand something to someone and say "Take your time with this, but watch it when you can." More than anything, what I buy now are films that I want to be able to lend out to people, or to show my girls when we suddenly have the time. Eventually, I may stop asking people to return certain movies, although that hasn't happened yet.

    And, since I pretty much exclusively buy films used, usually four at a time and never more than once a month, it's not like it's hard on my wallet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve, I also was looking to build a film collection of that scale at one point. It was easy when I was reviewing DVDs and getting lots of free ones. I still have a lot of titles and won't be removing them all, but I don't pick up many anymore. I do like your idea of using the collection as a lending library, but I've discovered that I rarely lend out more than an occasional film or TV show to my parents or a few friends. It's great that you're spread the word about films through your collection.

      Delete
  5. This is such a great post, and I can relate so much. I'm in a very similar place in life, 30, married, 3 young children (7, 4, 2) and so I feel a lot of what you say everyday. We also spent the better part of the weekend decluttering our closets so, like, your first few paragraphs felt like they were written about my weekend :-P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What's amazing to me in terms of closets is how quickly they become filled. We don't even buy that much stuff! It's funny that your kids are of similar ages; maybe this is the time of life to do a film blog?

      Delete
  6. I'd definitely miss your writing if you stepped out completely, but it definitely has to be something that you enjoy and not something you're forcing yourself to do. I like your approach of finishing one whole thing (tv series) before starting the next. I watched 2 seasons of Angel and haven't picked it up again since a year ago, but have watched parts of other tv shows in the meantime without completing them either. It's all been stuff I've liked, but still doesn't feel like it was actually worth the time. Maybe I should actually finish Angel before starting anything new.

    I went on a little movie buying spurt last year because we have such a great store in Baltimore that has lots of great used titles. I found myself picking up a few things each time I went. But I've started to stop myself because it really doesn't make sense to buy something I'll watch once or twice and be done with. Especially when I'm paying for discs from netflix each month.

    I've been reading your wife's blog and love all the de-cluttering posts (I love home blogs like that!). I went through a deep de-cluttering at the beginning of this year and it was so soothing and re-energizing. I wasn't expecting to feel so good afterwards but it really was therapeutic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jess. I expect that I'll keep writing here periodically, as I still enjoy it. I just tend to take on too many obligations and try to do too much. There's always Survivor at a minimum, and I have some other ideas flying around in my mind.

      It's funny that you mention Angel. Erin and I watched the first four seasons on Amazon Prime and then just stopped. We were still enjoying it but just haven't gotten back to the last season. It's on the very long list of shows that I'd like to finish (or start). I'm rolling through season four of Game of Thrones this week.

      I'll pass along the word about you enjoying Erin's de-cluttering posts. She'll definitely appreciate it.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, I suppose as long as I can read your takes on Survivor it will fill the void!

      I should probably comment on her blog sometime! I really enjoy it.

      Delete
    3. Jess, you should definitely comment if something is interesting. She'd think it was great.

      Delete
  7. I totally relate, Dan, as you might expect! And I still just have the one kid, not two yet. I basically just took a bunch of time off from everything for several months, and I feel like just now am I started to get everything added back in. One thing that's made a huge difference just psychologically is I gave myself "permission" not to set schedules on anything. I used to try to do weekly or monthly blog series, and that was hard for me even before Karina was born. Now I'm like, I'll write another in that series when I write it, and that's okay. It's probably not the best plan for growing blog readership, but I do this for myself, and if it doesn't make me happy, it's not worth doing. So I consider that decluttering in terms of stress/goals/and moviewatching in general. Mental decluttering. :) In terms of physical decluttering, we certainly should, but really we've just stopped adding to our collection much. I guess it's a start. Maybe we'll get rid of more stuff next time we move.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the mental decluttering has been the bigger change for me. We got rid of some books and movies, but what's made a difference is setting different expectations. Even with a blog that has a small readership, it's easy to get bogged down by personal deadlines. That can also help to get you on task, but with so much else happening, it got to be too much. I am starting to watch more things, but the lack of pressure has made it a lot more fun again. Thanks Jandy!

      Delete
  8. Hi Dan. This is a fascinating article, and I read your earlier piece on Appreciation vs Obsessive Consumption as well as it struck a chord with me. I'm at a similar age and a lot of what you have written about rings true. Like you I bought so many DVDs, books and records in my 20s, and it all probably takes up too much space at my house now; plus I simply don't have enough time to make the best use of the majority of it anyway, especially given the way consumption of pop culture in all its forms has changed in recent years. Then there's the fact I'm trying to stay on top of new music and films that interest me, plus I cannot leave the library - a great resource, as you say - without bringing home more books! At my house the decluttering hasn't quite got as far as any of my own collections yet, as they're not prohibitively massive, but whenever I have given or thrown other things away it has felt very good indeed. Maybe it's time to lose a few CDs at the very least.
    I'm currently out of work after taking a voluntary redundancy; as my wife is working and we don't have kids (plus I'm confident of getting a new job soon enough) I thought it'd give me a great opportunity to take a couple of months off and enjoy the free time. I've seen a lot of new movies as a result, but it certainly starts to feel like a chore (or rather having to write about them afterwards does, even if I enjoy it most of the time), as discussed in your earlier article. Anyway, I hope your decluttering continues to go well!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Stu. It sounds like you have some similar thoughts; I'm jealous that have some time off to do things like see movies and write about them. However, I know that can create its own stress in other ways. It seems funny to talk about having too many great options at the library, but that's pretty much the world we live in now. We're spoiled by all the pop culture options. I appreciate the great comment!

      Delete