January 2006

Useless things: A Christmas memory

By David Feela

I’m not sure I can remember the exact age when owning a horse amounted to a full-time thought, but I know when it occurred I spent my days from dawn to dusk thinking about it. I was maybe 4, or 5, or even 6. Right now it doesn’t matter, because that horse has been put to pasture for nearly 50 years. I also can’t remember why I wanted it so badly, much less what I got out of having it.

Of course, it wasn’t a flesh-and-blood horse. Children in the movies get those; mine happened to be molded out of plastic. It stood about 8 inches high with moveable joints in its legs and a saddle that could be removed and reattached by lining up little plastic pegs that conveniently fit into holes located somewhere at the top of the horse’s rump. One of the pegs broke soon after my parents brought the horse home for Christmas. Two of its legs hung limply before a month was up. I’d have shot it and put both of us out of our misery, but another month would pass before I wanted a toy pistol so badly I couldn’t think of anything else.

And that’s how things have gone for most of my life, one blinding urge to own something followed closely by an urge to own something else. I’ve tried to moderate my consumerism by shopping at thrift stores and yard sales, but in the end I guess I’m a useless materialist.

The philosophy that less could ever be more sounds good, and I want to believe it, but when applied to me it works out to be ridiculous. I believe that in the end the meek shall inherit the earth, but I suspect it will be only because all the good stuff will have been taken to other planets.

Still, for all the bad press that consumerism generates in America, useless things have their places. I mean, especially in what they make me do to acquire them. These passions to own new things get me up in the morning and off to work. They force me to persist when I’d prefer just giving up. They keep my attention focused on the world around me, the new, the revolutionary.

In the end of course, no matter what initially excites me, it seems I always end up being the proud owner of one more useless thing. One of my problems is electronics. Atomic clocks, digital weather stations, GPS devices, battery-powered blackjack games, ultrabrite flashlights, talking key rings, the list goes on and on. Just before the Pod people hit the streets, I thought the mini disc was the next revolution in music technology. What is an i-Pod, after all, if not an elaborate solution to a minuscule problem. All these people walking around with more songs than a radio station make me think I could have been a disc jockey. I rationalized the purchase, thought, If I owned an i-Pod, I could get rid of all my CDs, but no, not likely. I haven’t tossed out music equipment since the Beatles arrived in America. I even hang on to cassettes, just in case. And now that LPs are deemed “collectible,” I found a very nice turntable at a thrift store, one I never could have afforded back in the vinyl era. On the plus side, though, I’ve stopped buying 8-track tapes.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but doesn’t it seem the products these days are being manufactured with an eye toward an earlier demise? Even the plastic feels cheaper, and plastic is the main ingredient of a useless thing. Other characteristics include an unusually glossy finish that attracts the eye, a secret compartment for batteries, and a set of instructions that claim to be written in English.

If you’re still not sure what constitutes a useless thing, stop by a Dollar Store and shop the aisles for 15 minutes. Here’s the concept of uselessness raised to a corporate level, a national distribution of merchandise guaranteed to cost no more than a buck and worth even less. What surprises me is not that people flock to these bargain bins, but that the dollar itself has officially been reduced to a denomination that stands for junk.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.