It’s not about the stuff (the material life of one American consumer)

You’ve heard that buying stuff will neither make you happy nor improve your life. You’ve doubtless heard the evidence that experiences are usually way more fulfilling than objects – especially shared experiences. You probably believe all this, at least intellectually. Well, I recently had an experience that brought it home very powerfully to me.

Last time you were home, I invited you to sort through and toss 99% of all your schoolwork and art projects from the first, second, third… twelfth grade that I’ve been boxing up all your life (heaven knows you never asked me to save all that paper).

And while you were doing that, I went downstairs and got to work on some of my own junk. One specific task: manuals, warranty cards, and all the other paraphernalia and detritus that goes with all the stuff I’ve bought over the past 30+ years.

Yup, I’d saved it all. For everything from the house’s new boiler and electrical breaker panel all the way down to stray flash drives from Staples. (What kind of human saves the warranty paperwork for a box of floppy disks?)

Over the years, I’d organized most of this stuff neatly, alphabetically, in binders. Some of it found its way into boxes; some of it was just scattered around the basement. And now I was going to confront it all. Fun.

Of course, upwards of 90% of the stuff associated with all that paper is long gone. Most of the remaining 10% is out of warranty, and/or I’ve never used the manual (and never will).

So what is all this stuff I’ve bought and paid for? You could look at it as the story of one American materialist life. Not the story of my whole life — thank God! — but the materialist part of it.

Boy, what a load of junk.

All-in-One® TV remote and DAK® bread machine.

Palm® Pilot PDA and pizza stone.

Monster® cables and Victorinox® Swiss Army Knife.

High-gain Terk® FM radio antenna and broadcast fertilizer spreader.

Federal regulation carry-on size video camcorder bag. 1999 and 2001 CD editions of Encyclopedia Britannica. (They never knew Wikipedia was coming, poor saps. Like the dinosaurs and their asteroid.)

Optic Wonder: “An Instrument with Multiple Uses.” (Why can’t I think of any right now?)

Bimini Bay Outfitters Authentic Rugged Adventure Gear. (Corporate HQ of Bimini Bay Outfitters: Mahwah, New Jersey.)

Bensonic® Stereo Telephone: “The Complete Entertainer.” Clockwerx videogame for Macintosh. (Endorsed by Alexey Pajitnov, creator of Tetris, so it must be fun, right?)

Statehood Quarters binder. (For “the most important new coin collection in US history.”)

Rowing machine. And treadmill (which can still be found under all my spare cardboard boxes).

“Heavy Duty Industrial Steel Shelving.” (Homeowner’s tip: Rusts instantly and massively when your basement floods.)

Paradise® Pipeline® 64 high-performance video card. (Never compatible with anything.)

“83 channel remote control convertor” (sic). What did that do?

IBM v.90 PC Card modem with XJACK. What was an “XJACK”?

Humidifier. And dehumidifier.

What’s so embarrassing is how much of this stuff was bought based on some kind of hope.

Here, for instance, is the manual for my Salton Wet Tunes® Shower Radio. I could listen to music in the shower (and maybe even sing along). In the shower, nobody sounds bad… do they? 🙂

How rarely those hopes panned out! My life’s worked out pretty great… it really has… but no thanks to any of this crap!

The bread machine and the pizza stone… purchased by the part of me that loved the notion of cooking warm, wonderful, often Italian food for my family (which I never seemed to do even before I went vegetarian).

So, too, the two food processors (now scattered in mysterious pieces in the basement). And the mini-chopper (because the food processors were too much trouble).

And the fresh coffee grinder and Waring Mighty Squeeze® citrus juicer. For those romantic home Sunday brunches I imagined creating for Mom. I can close my eyes and see them now. But Mom never has. Guess what: Sunday mornings when she’s not working, she wants to be at the gym by 8:30. That sorta rules out languid bagel breakfasts swapping sections of The New York Times.

Plus, she hates lox. And, at 320-400 calories per bagel, I’m not eating a lot of those, either.

Life is never quite as fantasized.

Silver lining: my Black & Decker Flamebuster® kitchen fire extinguisher expired peacefully in its sleep, mercifully unused.

Here’s another hope (or, perhaps, obsession): getting organized. Hence, that Palm® Pilot personal digital assistant (kind of a proto-tablet). And when that didn’t do the job, surely the HP Jornada with built-in miniature keyboard would (and help me write great columns and essays from the road).

And when that didn’t do the job? An IBM WorkPad running Microsoft’s Windows CE.

I’m holding the row of black pre-printed sticky tags IBM included. You were supposed to assign yourself function keys for things like your Contacts or Calendar. You’d stick these tags above the row of function keys. Then you’d know exactly what to press to get your info and keep your life organized.

Ah, to have one’s life organized...

So, here’s the manual for the little hand-scanner that you were supposed to use to track your receipts and so forth (“I.R.I.S. OCR: Document to Knowledge”). And here’s the CD labeler software I never used. And here are the manuals for one unreliable data backup device after another. Tape drives. Zip drives (ask someone’s uncle about those sometime.) SyQuest® cartridges.

Check this out: “Congratulations! You are now the owner of an award-winning SyQuest SparQ 1.0 Gigabyte removable cartridge hard drive.” (People are always congratulating me for buying their stuff. Did I ever write a sentence like this when I used to write manuals? Probably.)

And under the Congratulations, sheaves of troubleshooting information for all the scenarios in which my new SparQ cartridge might not work. (“…certain combinations of hardware and software may create incompatibility between your computer and the proper installation of your SparQ drive. These situations are infrequent but do occur…”)

And under that, one more piece of paper: SyQuest Technology Proof of Claim, United States Bankruptcy Court.

Speaking of money, here’s the manual for Quicken 6, which was going to help me get my finances organized (and even automated!) And when Quicken 6 didn’t do it, then Quicken 2000. Or maybe Microsoft Money.

Oh, and what’s this? My Quick Start Guide for Quicken 2004:

Section 1: “How do I install Quicken?”

Section 2: “What happens next?

I think we already know the answer to that question…

Thankfully, Mom and I have managed to keep our finances reasonably straight (if never exactly automated or optimized) with a checkbook and Excel. That will just have to do.

Nothing seems to have escaped my failed desire to organize.

Consider this contraption: JBL Take Control®. This weird device was intended to operate all my audio and video equipment centrally through some kind of bizarre menu-driven, PC-linked, Microsoft®-created interface nobody has seen before or since. Sitting in the living room surrounded by our distinctly not-organized A/V equipment, you can guess how well that worked for me…

Do I sound like a QVC customer yet?

But hope springs eternal. And it’s not just me.

I’m sure you thought you were going to use that mountain bike when I bought it for you. I’m sure you intended to use that Razr® scooter more than you did.

Just like I thought you were going to use that contraption we hung in the basement that was going to help to refine your baseball swing.

Just like I thought our Huffy Portable Basketball System® would withstand the first strong windstorm.

Just like I thought you’d learn the entire 1st and 2nd grade curriculum at age 4 from our Schoolhouse Rock® Essentials CD-ROM. (What could possibly be an easier sell to parents like me? How exactly did all these educational software companies go out of business? Was their stuff really that un-fun?)

Or that you’d learn all about Tyrannosaurus Rex from Miss Frizzle with this Microsoft Magic School Bus® Dinosaur software I’m looking at. (Microsoft again! When I stack up all the Microsoft software manuals and licenses in these boxes, I think I may be personally responsible for a few of the lives Bill & Melinda Gates have been saving lately.)

Look at all this cash spent on trying to improve. We’re all going to improve. Right? We need to believe that. We should believe it. That’s a good thing.

(So if I didn’t learn how to play the keyboard with my Casiotone® CT-360, maybe my Yamaha PSR-275 would do the trick.)

And on it goes. ViewSonic® digital picture frame purchased to bring families together over happy memories of their far-away relatives and long-lost ancestors. Just WalkTM multifunction pedometer to track steps and promote walking for weight loss. Brookstone MusicBallTM intended to play hours of Frank Sinatra MP3s unattended loud enough for my Dad to hear (but it wasn’t nearly loud enough). Mediacom PhoneMiser to cut phone bills by routing each call over the cheapest network for that individual call. (Yeah, right.) One booklight after another to try to make it comfortable to read in bed (has nobody created a decent booklight?)

Junk, all junk. Or, as Pope Francis said in his new global warming encyclical (which, BTW, is stunningly radical in just the same way Christ seemed to be), “Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending… We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.”

It’s not about the stuff.

I think I’ve learned.

(Except, of course, for my deepening book addiction.

But then, as Obama told Maron, “You never know when you’re going to need that book… it could be the book you need in five years.”

It could.