Thursday, November 3, 2011

In defense of the admiration of things

Sometimes I think that the infatuation with flashlights, knives, pens, watches, gear of all sorts is a symptom of a rampant materialism that is fundamentally destructive and unhealthy.  And there is an indisputable logic to this argument, but that argument is a superficial one--an easy but hollow retort.  There is a reason why people, in so many different ways, come to have a deep admiration for things.  It is this reason, at base, why I am always looking for something better, something crafted with ingenuity and care, something that is, in one little way or another, perfect. 

When I heard a piece on This American Life about Stirling Moss and the Mercedes Benz SLR 300 #722 (Act 5 of the episode) that he drove on a famous race in Italy Mille Miglia, I realized that sometimes the admiration of things is not really about rampant materialism.  In fact, I can say that the more attuned I have become to the evaluation and appreciation of things the less I have purchased and the more I have saved up for the thing I really, really want (and not the thing that seems close to what I really, really want). 

Many times we are fond of things because of the memories associated with them, like the smell of turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving.  A thing stirs up a sense memory and we are flooded with nostalgia.  This is why I really appreciate my grandfather's tiny Case Mini Trapper

Other times we see things and they engage our minds.  Our brains think about the thing and try to disassemble it mentally (and for some of us that becomes a physical thing, hence all of the mods and tinkering out there).  We try to find what makes that thing work, whether it is a motherboard in a computer or the subtle curve of a flipper opener.  Then there is the appreciation of a thing that comes from an aesthetic enjoyment of the thing--sort of the way people appreciate art and design.  I love the Sebenza not only because it functions well, but because it is utterly and simply beautiful.  Its beauty is evinced in its simplicity.

But when it comes down to it, for me, the appreciation of things is about spending time and energy and finding that thing that is JUST right, that thing that does something so well that it renders others of its kind unnecessary.  It is perhaps the impulse behind Graham Hill's LifeEdited project.  Graham comes at things from an environmental perspective of reducing what we need, but he also enjoys things.  He believes, according to his recent talk at TED, that it is not a sin or a display of rampant materialism to like things, but it is worth thinking about what things you buy and own.  Buy good things.  Buy things that will make you happy now and in ten years from now, he said.  And that it is--that idea is why I take the time to thing about the gear I own and buy.  It is not out of Graham's environmental goals, though the fact that they are compatible is a pleasant side effect, but out of a desire to have a few, good things that I can use and that make my life better, more comfortable, and safer.

It is summed up by one phrase: "my trusty X..."  I really love the Muyshondt Aeon.  It is super small, easy to use, and sips batteries.  It is the very definition of "my trusty flashlight."  And now, having been with me for a while and used in all sorts of situations, it has developed that patina of use and palimpsest of memories.  It is the light that I used to check on my son at night.  It is the light I used during the hurricane, while building a TV stand with my Dad out of cherry, when checking on bumps in the night for my wife.  It is my trusty light and the care and attention I have paid in researching it and using it have made my life better, even if in only a small way.

Find the one thing you really want.  Save up for it.  And then enjoy it.  Its not rampant materialism.  Its about appreciating design, craftsmanship, and utility.

Now that I have said that I am going back to tracking the 15 packages I have coming from various places on UPS's website.  

1 comment:

  1. Well written and a good point made. And I have a tab open for a USPS tracker....