Thursday, May 21, 2009

Inconspicuous nonconsumption

I own five digital cameras and three computers and an assortment of MP3 players. All became obsolete about 15 minutes after unpacking, displaced by newer models with more features. I've often wondered what I was thinking when I acquired all this crap, and now Robert Tierney, writing in the New York Times, offers an answer: It's my primal need to impress strangers.

Thanks for the tip, Bob. I still wouldn't be complaining if it worked -- there are worse things in life than the fleeting admiration of passersby. But Tierney points out that sending messages with material goods is futile. If I thought my 8-gig iPod Touch might garner adoring glances from the chicks at the gym, I thought wrong. And not because they all have 32-gig iPhones. Turns out it has more to do with social invisibity. And that derives from my relatively flat scores in the "Big Five" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion.

Hey, stability! One out of five ain't bad. But to raise my profile in the other four areas, I'm afraid it might take more than the latest iToy. Perhaps more than a BMW. Or a sailboat, or a place in the Hamptons. In fact, I've begun to suspect that acquisition of property is not 100 percent reliable as a path to self-transformation.

It's sad in a way, this weird idea that happiness can't be bought. But if Americans are beginning to question the benefits of rampant consumerism, at least the timing works for me. The lack of a steady paycheck curbs the means of shopping anyway, if not the urge. I still pore over the Best Buy circulars every Sunday, but I never buy anything. My car's eight years old and running a little rough. The last pair of decent sunglasses I acquired were a set of Ray-Bans I found during a walk in the park. A new camera? Forget about it.

Strangely, I don't feel much different than when I was impulse-buying like the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Life proceeds as before. Shopping doesn't make you happy, true, but here's my little epiphany: Not shopping doesn't make you sad.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A memorable morning in May

I started this blog with a narrow focus on crime fiction, but it's been all downhill since. I've since veered into inane mini-reviews of TV and movies, descended into celebrity mockery, then went down a couple more pegs with trite remarks about the weather. Roughly a third of my posts now are about how pointless it is to do a blog at all. Today, it has come to this: I'm down to personal recollections.

Because today is May 18. Anybody who lived in the Northwest corner of the nation in 1980 remembers that day pretty well. We were living in Yakima, Wash., where I worked for the daily newspaper. It was Sunday morning and we woke to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. I went outside with the kids, and there to the west was a wall of gray, laced with lighting. A storm, yes, but there wouldn't be any rain that day. The radio informed us that Mount St. Helens had just exploded, and the ash cloud was headed our way.

I didn't know much about volcanoes, but I knew one had annihilated Pompeii. I hustled the kids inside and put our Honda Civic in the garage. I ran some drinking water. Then we huddled inside and watched in awe as night fell at about 9 in the morning. It felt like judgment day.

Naturally, the paper called shortly after to summon me to work. That was always the way with the newspaper career: When anything big happened, the last place you could be was with your family. It was an eerie drive to work, midnight at noon, the streets choked with ash, the few people outside wearing bandanas over their faces, wielding shovels or brooms to no great effect. I remember well my bleak realization that this stuff would never melt.

It was probably the longest newspaper shift I ever worked, right up there with the 2000 presidential election and 9/11. We came up with a paper we were proud of, which I hoisted for the camera the next morning during a break in shoveling ash. The Herald-Republic later put the page on souvenir coffee mugs, but the red headline quickly faded in the dishwasher. Now it just shows a tiny picture of the huge cloud that was inbound that morning. The page is gone too, lost in one move or another -- but newsprint is meant to last for days, not decades.

Anyway, who needs a souvenir for something like that? Seen in the rearview mirror, what is life but a collection of the days you remember without them? Come back in November and you'll learn what I was doing the day JFK got shot.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A bit more rain to prime the pump

I like rain in the morning, even knowing how much of it is going to end up in my basement. I like dark skies and thunder and the dog curled up at my feet, largely oblivious. I like the first of May, and the saturated greens of the grass and the trees viewed through rain-dappled windows. I like listening to NPR, at least for those fleeting hours before Diane Rehm comes on. Oh, and brown paper packages tied up with string ...

Which is my way of saying that I have nothing else to write about this morning. On the news it's all flash-flood warnings and swine flu precautions and Chrysler's collapse. Not much to say about that. I have a novel on a flash drive that will embarrass me if I send it to another agent and will embarrass me more if I don't. (One of the downsides of pretending to be a writer is that you're expected, occasionally, to provide some evidence of it.) But the rain precludes yard work and I've read all the news sites, so this will be a writing day. Or a rewriting day. And this is me warming up.