December 24th, 2013
The other day I had to go to the hardware store to get a part to repair a toilet. I was astounded by the heavy traffic and the huge parking lots filled to the very last parking space with Christmas shoppers. The annual orgy of consumerism called Christmas is something I do not experience; both Kathy and I have pretty much everything we want. As I walked to the checkout stand with my repair part, I passed a long line of tables sagging under the weight of super-duper sales. My eyes raked over the tables, looking for something that might interest me, but nothing caught my eye. I faintly recalled a quote — from Thoreau, perhaps? — that one is rich to the degree that one doesn’t desire anything more. I must be pretty rich.
But driving home, I realized that there was another metric to consider: if I had a ton of money, much more money than I needed, on what would I spend it? The list of things I would want to own constitutes a good inverse measure of my true wealth. So I resolved to prepare such a list. It must exclude anything of an investment nature, any charitable donations, and so forth. It is a list of my desires. Here it is:
1. Repave the driveway. It’s wearing out.
2. Reroof the barn. The roof is 40 years old and leaks.
3. A new Mac. My current one is so old that it can no longer run the latest operating system.
4. A digital microscope. I sometimes like to get magnified views of rocks.
5. A third-generation night vision system, to record meteors with.
6. OK, maybe an iPad. My wife really likes hers.
7. Books, lots of books: maybe two dozen per year.
That’s it. I don’t need a new car, because we already have two cars, both in great shape. I drive a van my father gave me; it gets lousy mileage but I drive it so rarely that getting a new electric car wouldn’t save anything. I don’t want a new camera; the little one I have takes 5 MP images and is too complicated for me to master, so there’s no point in getting something better.
Clothes? I’m perfectly happy with what I have; indeed, I probably have too many clothes. Kathy buys stuff for me occcasionally, which keeps my clothes drawers full. Like most men, I don’t discard an item of clothing until it is truly worn out. Kathy throws away my underwear that has only a few holes. I must have thirty shirts! Five pair of jeans serves my needs. Kathy buys boots at Goodwill and I must have a dozen pairs, only about half of which are truly useful, but that’s still six pairs of shoes. I suppose that I could use two pair: light for summer and heavy for winter. There’s no need for more. As to coats, hats, raincoats, gloves, socks, and so forth, I’m sure that much of what I now have will still be lightly used thirty years from now. After all, I can only wear one set of clothes at a time.
It’s not that I’m some sort of saintly anti-materialist; I already own all the junk I want, and more. I have an iPhone and all the music I want, a nice little amplifier to play it with, a comfortable office chair, all the furniture I can possibly use, and lots of other stuff I don’t need: a big collection of hats, lots of interesting antiquities, my orb collection (polished spheres 100 mm in diameter), two old motorcycles out in the barn, a copy of Erasmus’ Adages printed in 1532, several thousand books, a nice big screen television… I’m not sacrificing anything.
I’m sure that there are other things that might garner my desire if only I thought of them, but as I write this, I cannot think of anything — and I’ve been thinking about this for several days now. If I think of anything else, I’ll add it later.
This little exercise might prove useful for you to consider. One warning, though: younger people are still in acquisition mode, getting washing machines, wardrobes, and all the other paraphernalia of modern living, so the younger you are, the more stuff you’ll have on your wish list. Don’t feel unworthy if your list is longer than mine.