Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the insubstantial

New York, February 25th 2017.

Today's rambling is about the proliferation of the insubstantial. I've been reading about simplicity, minimalism, and status anxiety, and today I had one of those Eureka moments: I was able to see through life a bit and while it made me feel awkward, it lifted some weight off my shoulders.

It all started when I read The Strenuous Life, a speech by Theodore Roosevelt. It's an old piece that would generate heated debates today due to its conservative postures on gender roles and the importance of tradition. If we leave aside his opinions on what men and women should do at work and in the household, we can find true gems in the text. Its main take home is that embracing resilience and a good attitude towards the toilsome is, to a great extent, what makes life worthwhile. But it seems like we aren't necessarily in good terms with work, resilience, and consistency. We want to lie on a couch and tap on a phone application to buy food, pick what show to watch, take silly quizzes, find someone to have sex with and upload a 3-second video of whatever we're doing for the world to see.

While technology has significantly improved many aspects of life and should continue to do so, we are also inundated and overwhelmed by the flurry of choices presented to us by its latest advances. Then it comes as no surprise that even though everything is within our reach through the internet to make our lives more pleasant, we are often nervous, restless, depressed and lost. In 1869, George Miller coined the term 'neurasthenia' to collectively describe these symptoms of free-floating restlessness, lassitude, and emotional fatigue. This feeds on other factors that, as a whole, lower the quality of life in America. For instance, in a TED talk that went viral shortly after it was aired, social worker Brene Brown revealed that "we're the most in debt, obese, medicated, and addicted cohort in the history of the U.S". If the US is supposed to be one of the best nations on the planet, it's only reasonable to ask: what is going on?. I've come up with my own explanation: it's just hard to calibrate ourselves to know when enough is enough, and we can't simply step aside from the consumer-oriented mainstream for a second so that we can thoughtfully and responsibly assess the role of our material possessions in life. Motivated by this idea, I took a look at some of the products and services whose offerers consider me part of the target audience.

I went to a department store some time ago to buy some cheap shorts and t-shirts for the gym. One of the items captured my attention right away: it was a ready-to-go package called 'Men's Grab and Go': a closed, mesh bag that contained a t-shirt, socks and a pair of underwear for the man who 'has more important things to do'. Since it is a stereotype that men don't like to shop, this product was designed to save us from the arduous work of picking up a t-shirt and a pair of socks from the regular aisles. At the same time, the labeling 'for men' tries to validate some sense of masculinity in us-- especially in a society with frail egos that need reassurance all the time. In a broader sense, I noticed that the frailty of the masculine ego constitutes an unparalleled opportunity to make people buy insubstantial things they don't need -- one of the points I'm trying to make. Just consider another example: the 'Duke Cannon' soap. First, the name itself -- it's just soap, but it says 'cannon' -- a quick reference to the war de-feminizes the product and thus makes it more appealing to men. Second, it's a 'man-sized' soap (because we have a firmer grasp to hold a bigger soap - and nope, this soap won't get woman-sized when it gets smaller). For your own amusement, the soap description reads "He doesn't wear skinny jeans or listen to Coldplay. Duke Cannon could change a tire by the time he was three and was cleaning his own shotgun by the age of seven. He does more by 8 am than most men accomplish all day." Now, I want to point out that this is interesting and amusing at the same time. I'm not here to give a jeremiad in the style of George Carlin or to claim that there's some conspiracy going on (in the end, I tend to stick with Old Spice). But if we are able to unpack what's behind advertisement, we will know when we're going overboard with things we don't need.

The list goes on and on: subscriptions that deliver a monthly box to your door, and the ludicrous Amazon Dash buttons so you don't have to go to the store (or even order online!) to get fabric softener, condoms, or Gatorade. We also want Peapod or Amazon Fresh to bring groceries and GrubHub to deliver prepared meals. Also, we get two hot dogs when we ask for one at the movies, pay all our bills online, scan checks with a smartphone, have devices that can stream video and read out loud so we don't even have to look at the screen to read! Also available for our convenience: aloe-enriched toilet wipes carefully heated to 99F. Anything else we need? yes, this set of pillows, so that you, your neck, and your $500 tablet are comfortable at the same time.

Yet, we're still grouchy, bored, want to buy more things, and are constantly in a state of fear of missing out. A couple of weeks ago I was obsessed with the Jeep Compass and thought about how much I wanted that car and how shitty it was that most grad students can't get a new car with their stipend. Ironically, I was thinking about all this while taking a very pleasant walk across a forest on my way to work. I was taking for granted that nearly every day I could grab a cup of cocoa, have my smartphone play my favorite podcast, and simply walk to work while enjoying the view. In my desire of what I don't have, I was oblivious to the fact that it is probably nicer to walk or bike to work and see nature instead of being stuck in a traffic jam in a BMW.

Then it hit me. "Shit" was all I uttered. How many times I actually do this? If there is something that terrifies me beyond measure is to not value what I have and find out when it's too late.

I can't tell people what they should or should not buy. But I'm reconsidering everything. I've gotten rid of bags and bags of things I don't use, clothes I was not wearing, appliances that were in a box. I even got rid of my turntable because it was there just to 'represent my style' (what style?), plus it was gathering dust. I'm giving this a shot -- more simplicity, less clutter. First at home, then in the head. I'm down for this quest.