The older I get, the more I worry about my collection.In 2003 a team at the University of Colorado headed by Professor Leaf Van Boven surmised that ‘experiences make people happier than owning material goods’. In 2010 the man (and presumably some of the same team) went on to say that experiences made people enduringly happy compared to the short appeal of material goods. If Van Boven was as good as his word, he would have thrown an epic party for everyone involved in the study as well as all their friends, families and anyone who happened by, who bothered to bring a bottle of something alcoholic with them It would have been a scientifically proven night to remember – and who knows, maybe that’s exactly what Van Boven did.
I wouldn’t like to say if I’ve written about experiences or material goods more in my life. This blog probably has the lion’s share experiences recollected as I’ve intentionally shied away from talking about specific products in it; elsewhere I’ve talked about games, books, comics, music and toys at length, as well as more extravagant electrical goods, other objects that come packaged and off the shelf. With very few exceptions I’m not sure either of the two options makes me particularly happy, much less one happier than the other. But then, I’m not a particularly happy individual by nature: I’m much more of a doom-mongering Chicken Little saying that even if nobody else can tell the sky is falling, I can.
It mightn’t be so bad if I could look at my accrued collection of consumerist tat and derive great pleasure from it. There’s a lifetime’s worth of entertainment here, and more: handy tools and kitchen gadgets, musical instruments and even a few sets of clothes. It’s nice to be able to choose something off my bowing shelves – a CD, a movie – and use it to while away the night. I quite enjoy it when I do so: I like having movie nights, spending a couple of hours in the company of something I really enjoy and placing it back, knowing I can take it down again whenever I want and do it all over again.
Sometimes I smile. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I punch the air in jubilation as the hero wins the day . . . but it never makes me happy.
Though I’m sometimes happy during those life experiences Van Boven espoused – hanging out with friends or travelling with my wife – it’s less what I think of as ‘Hollywood happiness’ than it is a fleeting time of contentment when I can forget my worries and paranoid delusions and just be me, if only for a while. Those feelings still hover outside like vampires kept at bay, and once the crucifix is lowered they rush back in and once again, the weight of the world is on my shoulders.
This is what is known on the Internet as ‘first world problems’ or ‘white whine’. I, living in the first world am not entitled to complain about anything in my life, because compared to the majority of other people living on this planet, I have it pretty good. Obviously I should cast off my self-imposed shackles and concentrate my whining on the only thing in the world I’m entitled to whine about: other whiners.
I hate the White Whine website – not least because of how bitterly ironic is. Maybe we’d all be more tolerable if we didn’t let things niggle us so, and complain about it when they did. Most of our complaints are ridiculous, but we’re self-aware enough to know this while we make them: My tea’s gone cold; I’m out of biscuits; I slipped and fell in some mud and now my expensive shoes are ruined – we know these are hardly on the same level as contracting AIDS or having our families raped and murdered in front of us, but if we took this into account every time we accidentally broke an egg yolk or scratched our BMW would it actually make us perkier, or would we wallow in despair at the state of the world? Would we go out to famine-ridden countries and do something that matters? Would we join the Peace Corps?
Is that what the people who maintain the White Whine site have done? Or did they just make a stupid fucking website instead?
Increasingly, I look at my collection with a wearying sort of malaise. Short things seem pointless; long things seem too much effort to bother with. I could sell them all, but I’d make so little money from them compared with my initial outset it would only make me feel worse and not free, as perhaps I should. I wouldn’t say I was beholden to my collection, but it’s simpler to sit here and ‘circle’ online than delve into it. I can listen to music or a podcast while I’m doing so. I could chat with people while doing Internet research – I could do all of these things or none of them, and sit transfixed by the glowing screen, empty inside.
(Would you like a little cheese with your whine?)
Several people I know, with similar interests, of a similar age all seem to be stuck in similar ruts. Most of us wish we had more friends who’d like to play the games we like or go to the same places we want to go. We look at our collections – which we’ve enjoyed, mind you; which hold for us many pleasant memories – and sigh. We should sort it and sell it. We should do something.
Writing’s my escape, and it’s difficult even prompting myself to do that. It’s the same problem: It takes me a while to really get into the writing process, and once I’m in it, the trance is easily broken. I have to immerse myself fully without distractions, without someone talking, a neighbour’s radio blaring or the phone ringing. When any of those distractions occur I have to overcome that initial hurdle once again to get myself back into it – and the first hurdle in writing’s a tall one. Still, at least I usually feel a little better when writing. I can write whatever I want, create places and people that don’t exist and converse with them. In a way it’s almost as good as those brief moments when I’m with other people and can forget my worries to be myself – except here I can forget my worries and be the other people.
And talk to them?
Yes, and talk to them.
Even though you often don’t like what they say?
Well, that’s true, too.
I’ve been pondering ways of freeing myself from this consumerist rat race. Like I said, I don’t feel beholden to my collection, but there’s a phantom of a future collection that intimidates me even as it beguiles. So few conversations I have these days revolve around anything other than pop culture and spending money: we talk about the games we want, the movies we want to see, the music we like and so on. Beyond that maybe we’ll talk about places we’ve visited or hope to visit in the future. Everything feeds back into spending money on stuff we don’t really need. I don’t understand the point of expensive holidays when it would be cheaper, quicker and easier to visit places nearby, within walking distance. Maybe there are interesting cultures out there, but there are just as likely to be people and places completely unfamiliar to you that are ten, fifteen minutes down the road. Visiting those places would be free, but we’ve convinced ourselves they’re not worth seeking out even though the majority of us only visit expensive, exotic climes to eat our own native food, to lie down and get a sun tan.
(To prove how dour I am, here’s where I say I visited Niagara Falls and was completely unimpressed by it. It was nice enough, but when all was said and done it was just a big hole in the ground with a lot of water pouring into it like the world’s biggest toilet, mid-flush)
I don’t want to go off the grid. I don’t want to be a hobo with sticky hair who evangelises against television and lives off nettles. There has to be some middle ground where you can work and live and be happy with what you’ve got, but I’ll be damned if I know anyone who’s found it.
It makes me sad that I can only relate to people – and they to me – by our interests. It’s not as if I’m particularly good at relating to people in the first place without our tastes in music causing conflict between us.
And these conflicts can become absurd. This morning I saw an angry online debate betwen people arguing over which Magic: The Gathering set was the best. People were being snarky at each other’s choices – it was unbelievable. What kind of knot have we twisted ourselves into if such minor quibbles can result in such outrage?
It makes me think of comedy and the reason why I find it increasingly distasteful (and if anyone wants to point out that I’m a grumpy old man here, please, feel free). One on of his podcasts Richard Herring said that as a comedian it was his job to rile people up and say what they don’t want him to say. No, it’s not! It’s your job to be funny.
And comedians take their job so seriously it’s as if they don’t want to be funny. They want to make people think. They want to do something with their comedy. They want to say – as Herring said – the things nobody else will say. We can never sleep, we can never be lazy. Let’s tear down the system by pointing out the absurdities of everything. These days I’m not even sure if it’s possible to be funny without making someone laugh at the expense of someone else . . . and that’s a pretty awful rut to find ourselves in.
There has to be something more. Between reaching for dangling stars and treading on the heads of those below us, there has to be a better way.
I sometimes wonder if writing’s my salvation. I might be writing notes no one will read but I’m doing the most worthwhile thing I could be doing: keeping myself out of circulation of the world.
Because let’s face it: in a world filled with white whine the last thing anyone needs to put up with is a sour old vintage like myself.