March 2005


My grandfather used to say that there were only two things that an ordinary person could aspire to own that were really first-class examples of human ingenuity and craftsmanship: guns and watches.

Think about all that stuff that you have in your home. Most of it is just junk. Somewhere in all those possessions there are probably one or two things that are really special to you. They're probably special because of some sentimental attachment and to anyone else they'd just be some old thing with no history or meaning.

People have a natural tendency to animate things with special meanings and characteristics they probably don't have. People who believe in witchcraft and magic believe that things possess powers and memories of what has happened to them, or near them. A lot of other people believe this informally, in a kind of gentle superstitious sentimentality. Just think about all the thousands of people in the middle ages who paid good money for a "real" splinter from the true cross.

Things do exert a certain kind of magic over us... just pick up your mother's favorite blouse, or a treasured afghan, or any of a dozen other kinds of heirloom and smell them. The aroma of the thing brings back such a flood of memories and associations. Of course, it's just brain chemistry, but the feeling is very special and very human. Different people experience this special feeling in response to different things, so the same things are rarely special to more than one person.

My grandfather used to say that most people never own anything that is really, truly well made unless it's a gun or a watch. Everything else that is within the means of an average person is just junk. Most of the things we buy are cheap and nasty reflections of the things we'd buy if we could only afford to buy good stuff. Grandfather had high standards. To him, it was a quality item if you could buy a good one when you were 25 and if you kept it in good order, you could reasonably expect it to work just fine when you turned 75.

Looking around me now, I see some furniture that won't survive the present decade, books (they're a special case all on their own) and a whole bunch of computer equipment that was obsolete before I bought it and won't even be usable in five years.

Of course there's a whole mountain of disposable stuff now that didn't exist when my grandfather was alive. He'd be appalled. He hated two things: disposable things and clutter. If it wasn't the very best, he wasn't interested in owning it. This meant that he didn't buy very much after he was forty. By then he'd bought just about everything he'd need for the rest of his life, and having bought the best, it lasted. He did make an exception for cars. He bought a new one of them every couple of years, but he would have been just as happy with a good car service. Cars didn't excite him.

People talk about simplifying their lives, but often give very little thought to simplifying their wants. People think you're a nut if you want less. We're all taught that everybody wants more and that it is natural to want more. It may be for some people. But it sure isn't a better way to be happy.

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