The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
When was the last time you built a stove? Made stereo speakers? Manufactured chrome and leather stools? The last thing I made was dinner, which is now a memory as I sit on the chaise lounge someone made 20 years ago. Or maybe it wasn’t even made by a person, but some group of automated machines programmed to deliver a couch every three hours.
I see a lot of couches on the side of the road. Seems the way some people get rid of their stuff is to try to stuff it into a gutter, or under the railroad underpass. George Carlin once observed we are always trying to get rid of stuff in order to get more….stuff.
It’s what humans are good at. There are animals that are very clever at making nests, or traps, building hives and even using the occasional rock as a tool. But humans make stuff. Barbie dolls and glistening swords, Iphones and raclette makers, tennis rackets and accordions, the list of stuff will always be endless because human ingenuity just keeps on coming up with more cool stuff. Of course, somewhere along the way, the creative act has been separated from the manufacture, so that we’re needed less and less to actually make things, but simply consume the stuff.
During my twenty five year career detour as a mime, I had an interlude as a Foley artist. Our job was to fill in the sound for films that had poor or unclear audio. We did footsteps, slamming doors, panting, barking dogs, and in my case, a lot of screaming. I don’t remember why the studio owner had decided that mimes would be better at creating sound effects than your average person, a counter-intuitive choice perhaps, but I and my friends had a few lucrative years in a relatively stress free environment. The Foley studio was identified with a cartoon from the New Yorker on the door: a construction barricade, a sign that said “Caution, Mimes ahead,” and two clownish mimes peering around the corner waiting for the next hapless pedestrian.
One of the biggest jobs we had was doing a movie called The Stuff. Now (sort of) revered as a classic, cheesy, horror spoof, The Stuff appeared around the same time as the Tofutti craze. It was a time when everyone was making stuff out of tofu: tofu hot dogs, tofu cheesecake, tofu bacon, with clever ad campaigns about how irresistible tofu can be. I happily developed recipes for tofu lasagna, tofu quiche, and chocolate tofu mousse. It’s amazing I didn’t turn into a white block. Tofutti was tofu’s ice cream alternative; smooth, creamy and sweet. The Stuff was about an ice cream substitute that looked an awful lot like Tofutti and became a killer best seller. No one could resist it, people became totally addicted, turning into zombie like creatures who only wanted more of “The Stuff.” However, it was really an alien creature that was out to destroy the earth. After a month of re-recording chase scenes, mad dog snarling imitations, falling down the stairs effects, and lots of screaming, the studio presented me with a tongue in cheek plaque as the best Foley screamer they’d ever had. I could never eat Tofutti again.
The word stuff can be traced all the way back to Latin and Greek words for stop, or stop up. Over the centuries, the word evolved to include stuffed fabric (quilted), chain mail (stopping stuff), and furniture (more stuff). By the late 1920’s stuff also became a euphemism for drugs as well as the saying, “She knows her stuff.”
So can stuff also be intangible? After all, telling stories is just “making stuff up.” Am I making something tangible when I sigh and say, “I just can’t go hiking today, I have too much stuff to do?”
When I occasionally wander into a thrift store, I am awed by the massive amounts of stuff people get rid of. Someone recently pointed out to me that most of the stuff we buy was made in Asia somewhere, that we no longer make stuff, just use it. It made me wonder. If what humans are good at is using their creativity to make more stuff, and we’re not making it, what are we doing with our ability? And what would happen if we stop buying all this stuff? Are we just as addicted to duvets, Crocs, Hummel statues as the people addicted to The Stuff? Is our desire to consume a dementia caused by an alien takeover?
I look at my hands. They can knead dough, thread a needle, hold a trowel. Then I remember. I am “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Me. Just more stuff. Or something more?
More stories? Check out my new book, Meditating With My Hair On Fire