Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Thing About Stuff
by Virtual SimonTM

Blogging has so quickly and pervasively become part of what the culture talks about that it's easy to forget why people do it. Sure, a lot of the time it's just a way to blather without interruption or vent one's spleen (guilty as charged), but the most rewarding thing about doing this here Very Hot writing has been exchanging ideas and wishes and pleasantries with all of you. The comments just get more moving, perceptive, wise and funny every day. Please keep 'em coming.

I've been laid up with a mysterious virus for a week or so, during which time such strenuous activities as going to the store or standing up for five minutes or longer made me feel as though I'd run a marathon. Thankfully, Sera's been kicking serious ass with her last few posts – as the comments below amply demonstrate – and like a lot of you, I've felt inspired and more than a little challenged by the ideas she's been exploring.

I don't mind telling you that the pleasures of VHJ.com are accompanied by nagging anxieties: What can I write about? Will I sound self-involved and/or pompous? Are readers disappointed because my discursive hobbyhorses are so often less hot and less Jewy than they have reason to expect? Should we be updating the site every day with little newsy bites rather than more infrequent, long-winded vision quests?

Now Sera has raised the bar. I can't see myself following her provocative, revealing meditations on sacred dancing and silence with some riff on pork products or monster movies. Not that those aren't worthy topics, but I want to follow her lead for now and explore some more trenchant territory.

Fact is, I've been thinking about stuff.

No, not "thinking about stuff." Thinking about stuff. Material goods. Possessions. The items we covet.

Like Sera, I'm a professional writer. I don't write a TV show (and even if I did, I wouldn't be writing one now, would I? Solidarity!); our clients hire the fair Julia and me to craft all manner of marketing materials, lifestyle-branding collateral, entertainment hype and other glittery promo-prose. We do pretty well, but running a business in the ruined Bush economy can be punishing, especially if you've got a mortgage and insurance and kindred grown-up expenses. Checks come in and the money's already gone, devoured by a ravenous pack of bills.

Which doesn't keep me from wanting more stuff – shiny Fender Telecasters, vintage barware, some groovy art from a local gallery, an Armani coat, an SLR digital camera, moon boots, a jet pack ... you get the idea.

But even when I do get more stuff and bring it home, my awareness of all my old stuff is enhanced. It's as though everything I already own and have neglected has let out a collective sigh, like weary prisoners welcoming a new inmate.

I've realized that what I really want is less stuff.

This thought feels super Zeitgeisty. Peeps are buzzing about a book called The History of Stuff. The Green movement may be too late (or WAY too late) to save us from spending our golden years in wetsuits, but they've certainly raised awareness about reducing consumption and petty acquisition. And in our own sphere, our beloved housemate is moving out to co-habit with his beloved GF and now faces the herculean task of transferring his boatload of possessions from our place to various storage locales.

And then there was this story I heard on NPR not long ago about the decline of commerce on Second Life. For those of you who don't know, that's a "3D online digital world" where people can log on and have a completely digital existence. They can even spend real money to buy virtual money ("Linden Dollars") so they can purchase virtual things like online land and furniture for the online cribs that sit on that land and cars for their online commutes. Real brands like clothiers and athletic-shoe makers and soft-drink purveyors have thrived there. Third-world businesses have busily evolved manufacturing centers for virtual goods; dirt-poor residents of Asian villages actually "make" stuff on computers for netizens to buy. I shit you not.

But everything in the cyber-sphere is ahead, so Second Life and kindred sites are experiencing a debilitating downturn now; the NPR commentator noted the grim site of shuttered stores on the virtual thoroughfare.

Imagine telling your virtual child that there'll be no imaginary Chanukah this year, and that you'll all have to tighten your (unreal, though likely Prada) belts and spend less money on nonexistent things.

This story didn't impress itself on my increasingly forgetful gray matter simply because of its rich comic possibilities. In my mind, the virtual production of virtual stuff for virtual acquisition – and the virtual economic collapse of said industry – engendered a kind of spiritual metaphor.

Because when we have reached such an ethereal summit of consumption – when the "thing-ness" of the things we buy is subordinated to the crackish intoxication of buying itself – we are confronted by a paradox of koan-like dimensions. We are focusing our energies on buying ... well, not nothing, exactly, but no-things. But what we have to show for it is nothing. The experience of acquisition is all. Scratch that: the virtual experience.

I don't have a flop on Second Life, but the piles of things that clutter the margins of my world, so many of which I lusted after and schemed to get, may as well be made of ones and zeroes.

I want less stuff and more (non-virtual) experience. I want to unload what I've got. Want to give me a present? Make a no-interest loan in my name to an entrepreneur in the developing world via Kiva.org, or send some livestock to a third-world villager through Heifer International so he or she can raise goats in the fresh air instead of making virtual crap.

Now, tickets to a show? A trip to Hawaii? Those I'll take.

P.S. I speak only for me. Sera's birthday is upon us, and as far as I know she will still accept material goods. Thank you.

4 comments:

Simon Glickman and Sera Gamble said...

P.P.S. There didn't seem any elegant way to work this into the post, but R.I.P. Heath Ledger. Dude was a tremendous talent and we're really sad that he's gone. Seriously, he could've done a fleet of crappy Hollywood shoot-'em-ups and chick flicks and earned enough dough for 17 mansions, but instead he kept choosing really challenging roles and expanding his range. He was an artist, and we wish we could keep watching him develop. In the spirit of non-acquisition, the Jews urge you to rent a bunch of his movies.

The Minstrel Boy said...

yeah, that was a shame about young heath. poor thing.

possessions is another place where i feel that i benefit from having the perspective of being raised on the rez. possessions can truly drag you down. once it's understood that no, you can't have any of my guitars, harps, or other instruments i tend to be pretty laid back about stuff.

i try to keep my perspective tuned. there is something to be said for some of the stuff, especially nice stuff. it can make life a bit easier, a bit richer, it can be a benefit. if it takes on a life, or meaning of its own, it becomes pretty twisted and will have a dragging, almost imprisoning effect.

kiva rocks. so does heifer project. i started giving heifer project certificates to my kids for christmas a few years ago. my kids were jazzed and dug it. made. me. proud.

Rachael said...

I love Heifer! Besides doing great work with people around the world, it's the ultimate gift for people who *do* *not* need more stuff and/or are impossible to shop for. Several people on my holiday shopping list were recipients of Heifer donations this past year.

Hadn't heard of Kiva before, but I'll be sure to check it out.

amber said...

hello! just stumbled on to your deliciously funny blog, and being a very hot jewess myself, I'm intrigued. Here's my take on "stuff", there is so much beautiful eye-candy out there just begging to be purchased, and who are we, really, to deny ourselves? I just make sure there's a good balance between the new "stuff" and purging the old "stuff". great blog, I'll be back!