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Amber Eby is part of the extended staff at Alternative Tentacles Records even though she pretends to just help us out when she wants to. She can be found petting dogs and cats at any number of Bay Area animal welfare organizations and gently discussing the virtues of a vegan diet.

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Last Christmas, I was pissed.  Like really, really pissed.  I’m not usually a person who gets angry, especially during the holiday season.  Usually I cry.  Like really, really cry. I cry when I see moments of pure compassion, like foster volunteers emptying the shelter so no animal has to spend Christmas Day alone.  Or someone on social security donating what little extra money they have to a Salvation Army bellringer dressed as Santa.  I cry when I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and know that my family is safe, healthy and happy.  I cry when I open photo Christmas cards and see the amazing little people in my life becoming amazing bigger people.

Well not last year, jerks.  There were no happy tears, no tears about how beautiful and fleeting life is, how magical the season of giving is.  I was pissed – there were children separated from their families (at the border, because of unfair incarnation, because their parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet, because of war – take your pick – families that belong together were not together), the area surrounding my community had literally spent the last months burning, and we were busy fighting the war on Christmas and being mad at Starbucks, not because they use slave labor but because they went with plain red cups for their holiday design.  Many of us were buying gifts. I was surrounded by gifts, things I didn’t want, when others didn’t even have what they needed. Of course, I am incredibly fortunate to have people who love me enough to buy me gifts, but it felt like a distraction. Like maybe if we focus on buying things, we can forget about what is really going on during the most wonderful time of the year. We buy, buy, buy and not worry about the unseen costs of the items-their toil on the environment, local economy and workers. 

So what was I going to do about it? Nothing.  That was literally my solution…nothing.  I decided that for the next year, I wasn’t playing.  I was dropping out and would buy nothing unless I truly needed it and not accept any gifts for myself.  I thought that maybe this very small act of sacrifice could make a difference and inspire others to think before we consume just as reaction, because we can and because we’re bored. Because we’re too focused on ourselves and not others.

I set the bar pretty low – I limited it to physical items, not services.  I could still get my hair and makeup done, but could not buy new hair products or new makeup (and considering I am a very vain woman approaching middle age, these services could be considered needs, at least psychological ones).  I could go to shows and travel, but I couldn’t buy any merchandise or souvenirs.  I reached out to my family and friends and told them that in an effort to lower my carbon footprint and not contribute to unfair labor practices or thoughtless consumerism, I would appreciate it if they did not purchase me any gifts for my birthday, any holidays or my wedding anniversary (thanks Chris for going along with this!).  If they felt so inclined, they could make a donation on my behalf to a cause I supported, make me a gift or celebrate with me in another way, such as cooking a meal or going for a hike together.   

A little background to put this perspective – if you met me in the past 10 years, you probably wouldn’t think this challenge would be very hard.  I’m not a big recreational shopper (can we just go outside and pet dogs instead???) and have become really good at either buying things second hand or things made in the US by small retailers or independent artists.  I love clothing swaps and hand me downs – “If you don’t want that dress anymore, please let me know, it’s super cute, thanks!”  If you knew me prior to that when I was a victim of fast fashion and needed a new backpack every school year school or a new dress for whatever the occasion, please refer to the first sentence of this paragraph. I swear I’ve changed.  Also, I love fashion! I love getting dressed every day and am very aware and grateful for the privilege of picking out my clothes.  I love dressing for a theme and again my husband Chris is a super good sport about going along with this.  We have a collection of couples matching shirts and dresses. I have multiple Halloween dresses and multiple cat dresses and multiple dresses that feature Halloween cats. I love dresses, hair bows, bandanas, patterned jackets, statement purses, anything made by Gwen Stefani, any article of clothing that is animal-themed (especially dresses), cardigans, beanies, sunglasses, colorful sneakers, ballet flats and did I mention dresses?  I am also the type of person that once I have something I love, I will keep it for as long as I can.  I still have clothing that I regularly wear that I got when I was a freshman in high school (we can talk about how stoked I am that it still fits later).

So 2019 came and families are still separated and the Northern California again spent the fall with evacuations and emergency response, and I did nothing other than continue to enjoy the privilege of selecting my outfits and admire the many dresses I already have.  So what did I learn?  How did it feel to buy nothing for a year?

A little more background – this year I went to see Gwen Stefani at her Vegas residency (see above), spend 10 days in Japan, visited my mom (my favorite person to go shopping with) in 3 cities, worked a Warped Tour booth right next to the booth of my favorite band that is not Gwen Stefani and worked a Punk Rock Bowling booth next to an amazing artist who sold vintage inspired dresses made in LA.  And I learned that it’s not that hard to buy nothing! Like even when you are in situations where you would really like to buy something. 

Do I feel like  I missed out on anything?  Maybe when they sold out of Gwen Stefani sweatpants after her Vegas residency, and I have yet to find them on Ebay.  I could’ve brought home a whole suitcase of super kawaii stuffed animals from Kyoto.  I cheated twice – once in Japan, I bought my best friend a set of matching BFF enamel pins and told her she could chose who the other pin went to.  I’m lucky for so many reasons that she chose me, a cute pin being the least of these.  I also found sweaters that were buy one, get one free and only came in XS.  It was very convenient that I knew one person who would like such an XS sweater and the other one, well technically I didn’t “buy” it.  

I had the best birthday without any gifts.  Following the theme of my husband being super understanding and thoughtful, he wrote me a song for my birthday, which is worth more than all of printed dresses on Etsy.  He took me along with my best friend to Charlie’s Acres Farm Sanctuary to celebrate and now we go back to volunteer there once a month.  I already said he was super thoughtful and I was completely lucky to have her, right?  

I gave more. By taking less for myself, I was able to give more to others. When I saw a call for donations for something that moved me, I generally had more money to share and was able to do so without worrying if I would have enough for myself because I already have more than enough for myself.

I also learned that when a much younger person, say a nine-year-old, decides to forgo birthday presents and ask for donations, say to the local animal shelter, the response is generally overwhelming goodwill!  If I am at the animal shelter that day, I will make sure that the nine-year-old also gets a thank you present in the form of stickers, a t-shirt, toy for their own pet, basically whatever the animal shelter has on hand to give away for such happy crying situations.  When a woman approaching middle age asks for donations instead of presents, the response does not generate nearly as much goodwill.  I had people who I love who are genuinely good-hearted people respond with concern that I would hurt small businesses, sadness that I was taking away the joy they receive from giving, complete confusion and anger that I was trying to ruin capitalism as we know it.  I was utterly surprised by the amount of pushback my personal challenge and very small attempt at change received.  People cared much more than I thought they would’ve and sadly not in the way that I thought they would.  

For those who rightly claimed “it’s very difficult to be a small business owner in America,” I completely agreed.  But would like to add that I still needed food from the farmer’s market and toiletries from our local co-op; I had presents for my family and friends to buy from any number of lovely small businesses in my neighborhood.  I would also like to add that “it’s very difficult to be one of our unhoused neighbors in America.”  Maybe you could donate to those causes and then people living in secure, safe housing could get jobs and purchase items at small businesses as well.  Slight eye roll. For those who protested that I was “taking away their right to feel joy from giving,” I am truly sorry.  I honestly never meant to hurt anyone and sincerely hope you can find joy in giving to others who you may not know. I believe that you are good people and that there are causes we both care about.  I look forward to working with you to find one that we can support together.  Bigger eye roll, but with sincerity.  For those who were confused, thank you for listening!  I was very excited to share my story and hope it has inspired you to be more thoughtful about your consumer habits.  And to those who told my mom rather than telling me that you couldn’t “support my attempts to ruin capitalism as we know it,” well guilty as charged.  Our political ideologies are vastly different, but in some weird way maybe you understand me most of all.

Other than the two loopholes mentioned about, I stuck with my challenge.  I got almost all the way through January when I broke my fast with a second hand hot pink dress printed with black dinosaurs.  It’s adorable, and Chris already has a dinosaur shirt that it will match perfectly.  It will be loved and worn until the point where it has to move on to its next life as a rag. 

And am I still mad? I am actually – and I’m still sad. Families will still be separated, and I will keep my emergency supplies and air mask for next year’s fire season. The general public will continue to care more perceived snubs by Starbucks cups rather than their terrible labor practices.  But I know we can make small changes, we can be more thoughtful and know that we have enough. We can pause and consider – do I need this? Am I buying this because I need it or because I can? If we all did a little more nothing, we might be able to slowly change something.

You can read Eby’s first editorial for Alternative Tentacles “…But We Were Lucky

Photo pulled from social media. Photographer unknown.