When did owning things become a substitute for living?
by Stephen Heuser
A few months ago I found myself, on a hot day in Long Island, going on a jog
with a friend I hadn't seen in a couple of years.
My friend seemed to be doing pretty well for himself. John was 29, successful
in the advertising industry, living in New York and London. And to judge by his
running gear, he was in good shape, too: John pulled up in shorts made out of
some flashy, high-tech material, with a mesh pocket across the back for a cell
phone or Volvo keys or whatever. He had spanking-new shoes. I was wearing an
old pair of safety-pinned shorts. John made me look like a pud.
Until, that is, we started running. John was on my rubgy team in college, and,
like approximately six million other members of that team, he was quicker and
fitter than I was. No more. My friend John was, not to put too fine a point on
it, hilariously out of shape. He explained, as he huffed along the flat,
languid Long Island roads, that he hadn't been running in nearly a month. In
fact, these days he barely ran at all.
And I felt better about myself. Not because I could outrun my college friend --
I felt better because I had proof that somebody, somewhere, may spend
more money than I do on equipment he never really uses.
Let me put it this way. I own a spiffy pair of modern, up-to-date
aluminum-and-neoprene showshoes. I love snowshoeing. I have loved snowshoeing
every time I have done it in my entire life, which is twice. The snowshoes are
sitting in a closet.
As a teenager, I went skiing with my family at least four or five long weekends
every year, my feet jammed into rented equipment, the rest of me outfitted in
the terrible way a California teenager outfits himself for the snow: jeans,
about eight shirts under a windbreaker, a baseball hat, and a scarf wrapped
around my face. I was consistently miserable, and one of the first big
investments I made when I got my first job was a good pair of ski boots and a
big insulated pair of ski pants. They feel great, and they look great -- right
there in the closet next to the snowshoes. I have skied once since 1997.
It's not just winter sports. I asked for a snappy new tennis racket for
Christmas two years ago and use it about as often as I vote. My kitchen, like a
lot of my friends' kitchens, is stocked with equipment for all kinds of exotic
culinary stunts that I never actually perform. I have one tomato plant and five
herbs in the backyard, and to care for those plants I own a trowel, a weeder, a
miniature rake, and 50 bamboo stakes.
I have noticed a strange coincidence, which is that the moment I acquire one of
these pieces of equipment almost always corresponds with the last time I
partake in the activity it's designed for. My friend John was in great shape
back in college, when he ran out to rugby practice in a crappy old T-shirt and
a pair of dirty sneakers, and I'd wager that he stayed in shape right up to the
time in his mid 20s when he started to be able to buy $40 shorts and $120
An old boss of mine, one of the wisest people I know, had a quote from Anthony
Burgess tacked over her desk that ran something like this: "At some point
owning books becomes a substitute for reading them."
How sad, I always thought, but even then I was beginning the slow, embarrassing
process of acquiring shelves full of books I would never, in fact, read. It was
the start of a career of consumption that has seen me acquire the sailing
gloves, the snowshoes, the guitar, all the while tapering off on my actual
sailing, snowshoeing, and aimless strumming.
When I want to feel fat and happy about my world, I reflect that having more
stuff than you really use is, historically, a condition of the rich. The
impoverished hunter bangs out his living with one rusty gun; the established
landowner owns six handcrafted shotguns he never bothers to use. By historical
standards -- heck, by the standards of most of the inhabited world -- I'm a
spoiled pig. But wealth is relative, of course, and among Americans I'm not
particularly rich. I have a woefully outdated computer, a broken stereo, and a
smallish apartment in Cambridge without enough closet space to hold half of all
this stuff I'm hoarding against the day when I finally have enough free time to
This feeling of having more stuff than time always becomes particularly acute
in January, when the great traffic accident called the Holidays is over, and we
sift through the detritus of unfocused generosity -- our own, our friends'.
Every January the objects I sift through look less and less like nifty new
stuff, and more like wishful thinking, like expensive souvenirs of the life I
once had time to lead. In the great trade-off of modern life -- money for time
-- this sort of acquisition acts like a pacifier. We can afford the tokens, but
not the substance, of a life lived fully.
I have always been fascinated by extremely resourceful people. If the
scarf-and-a-baseball-hat school of ski outfitting can be embodied in an entire
life, that life belongs to a woman named Amy Dacyczyn, the frugality guru who
published the Tightwad Gazette, and who seared herself into my memory by
recommending the following way of dealing with empty jelly jars (I am
paraphrasing here, but the advice is real):
Pour hot water into the jar to dissolve remaining dried jelly. Freeze this
liquid in an ice tray and insert toothpicks to make fruit popsicles for your
If I were Amy Dacyczyn, I would snowshoe by strapping old tennis rackets
to my feet with broken shoelaces saved from all the old pairs of shoes I sewed
together to make my current backpack. (If I were this woman's kids, on the
other hand, I'd run away to a house where you could eat Cheetos and throw
away the bag!) If I were Amy, the world would assuredly be a better
But I would also be face-to-face with the real borders of my own existence, and
this is the sticking point. Who the hell wants that? I'm happier living my life
as Dorian Gray's portrait, becoming older and grumpier every year, as the
parallel Me who lives in my various closets explores the limits of possibility,
dives headlong into all my enthusiasms, pushes bravely into the street on that
flashy pair of rollerblades I have used exactly -- yes -- one time since I got
My girlfriend worries about my propensity for risk-taking. I can hear it in her
voice every time she tells me to slow down on Storrow Drive: one of these days,
she thinks, I'm going to skate into the middle of the lake and never come back
out. She has started to get especially worried whenever I mention ice climbing.
This year I hiked up a couple of New Hampshire mountains in the snow -- not
exactly ice climbing, but it was near ice, and the real thing has
started to look devilishly exciting.
If she's smart, of course, she'll save up for my next birthday and buy herself
some peace of mind. It might be expensive, but all I need is some crampons, an
ice ax, and a climbing helmet, and it's virtually guaranteed I'll never visit a
mountain in winter again.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser[a]phx.com.