Sunday, February 7, 2016

Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy an eggplant

I read an article a while back that suggested a person will be happier if they seek experiences, like traveling, rather than objects, like cars and electronics. I had to laugh; this struck me as “first world solutions” in its assertion that the secret to a good life lies in allocating your disposable income in one way and not another. That said, this easily could have been the kind of article I nodded to like a bobblehead doll and then posted on facebook feeling all pleased and smug because other people are doing it wrong but not me. After all, I love to travel, and I don’t like buying stuff; shopping is painful and boring to me, and the first thing I tend to think after I’ve made a purchase is Good; now I don’t have to do that again for a while. This attitude is not a tribute to my unworldly, Zen nature but simply the way I assess the worthiness of any given endeavor. After all, I’ll go run circles in the woods for hours because that work seems worth the reward. Buying new doohickeys, on the other hand, is just tiresome toil.

I started thinking about all this because I had to replace my old car this weekend, a car I had for 15 years. My car did not have a name, nor did I attribute any personality to it, so I can’t say I was necessarily all that sentimental about letting it go. But fifteen years is a substantial amount of time in a person’s life, so it was impossible to avoid thinking about my connection to this particular doohickey over the years—and why it is that even knowing that experiences beat objects, objects still have a certain inescapable hold on our lives.

The first car I ever owned, I did give a name, Harrison, even though it was a Honda and not a Ford. I just liked the name, plus it was my first car, and that seemed to demand personification. Four years after I bought Harrison I sold him and moved to New York City because, personified or not, a car is a huge liability in Manhattan, and Harrison would’ve served as little more than a very expensive closet. I went carless, and as I settled into my city life, it began to look as though literally nothing would ever replace Harrison. I did not have a car; I had experiences, lots of ‘em. Those seven years changed me a great deal, and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that most of what I was doing was still just another form of buying things. In New York you go to restaurants to eat other people’s food, you go to concerts and plays to hear other people make music and see other people act, you go to book readings to meet authors who write books you know you could have written (and written far better) but didn’t. You’re a passive consumer, and even if the restaurants boast Michelin stars, you’re there because you paid money to be there.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. This is how capitalism works—and wins. Yeah, that material object you just bought was constructed for planned obsolescence and will need to be replaced almost before you’ve gotten it out of the box. Yeah, a gadget cannot hold you or comfort you or keep you from being lonely. But then most people can’t or won’t do that either, not the way you probably need them to, not all the time, and at least the gadget does what it’s supposed to do—and if it doesn’t, well, it’s easily replaced. So it goes even if experiences are substituted for objects. And yet at some point I started to wonder about living a life in which all I am is all I buy. I am not a great cook, but isn’t there something to be said for enjoying a mediocre meal you cook for yourself over a brilliant meal you just about have to take out a loan for at Le Bernardin or Per Se? I realize that anybody can cook a mediocre meal, whereas there’s only one Ripert, one Keller, but the thing is, lots of people, if they have the money, can enjoy the restaurant meal. The experience I have cooking for myself is unique.

The upshot was after seven years I wanted a new experience, though I wasn’t entirely sure what. So I did what you do in this situation if you’re bookish and writerly: went back to school. This unfortunately required the purchase of a car, as the school was 180 miles upstate. I did my research—a lot harder to do back then, as there was no, because there was not much of—and made my purchase. 

That was August 2001. Three weeks later, everything changed.

Oddly enough it was the buildings that shocked me more than anything else. We are reminded of life’s fragility nearly every day, when we look at the news and hear about who died. We know life ends. We know people leave us. It is horrifying when someone leaves us unexpectedly, violently, but if we know a little bit about our world we admit that this is happening all the time. But a building? How was that possible? How could two buildings be there and then not there all within a couple of hours? How could they and everything and everyone in them now be dust and ash?

To this day I still can’t fathom it.

We can say over and over and over again that money can’t buy happiness, that material objects are flimsy and inconsequential compared to what really matters. We can believe all we want that the mind can move mountains and the heart doesn’t lie, but the truth is we simply cannot ignore the physical world and our corporeal existence within it.

I shouldn’t mind so much when something I own breaks down, because that’s what things do, but as I said, I am not so calmly Zen that I don’t throw a tantrum when my computer freezes, my car overheats, and the zipper on everything I own that zips goes off its rails like a crazy train. When I realized it was time to replace the car—because it was, in fact, overheating, and moving sluggishly, and a host of other behaviors that suggested it had been on a 15-year-ultramarathon that was coming to an end—I was more annoyed about the disruption to my life than sad about the impending loss. This time, though, there was much less hassle; it was easy for me to research an affordable vehicle in my area, and I brought the fiancĂ© with me just in case the car guys wanted to pull their “hey, little lady” attitudes on me and mansplain why I should pay full price.

The sales guy at the Nissan dealership where I hoped to buy a good used trade-in was understandably astonished when I told him I’d had one car (a Nissan, in fact) for the last decade and a half. “Wow!” he beamed. “That’s fantastic! You are like the face of Nissan!”

I suppose he meant this as a good thing. If they were going to pay me a lot of money to be the equivalent of that awful Toyota Jan, I suppose I wouldn’t object too forcefully, but I was definitely the wrong person to be praised for customer loyalty. “I’m the face of me,” I said quietly. “I stuck with one car all this time because I hate buying new stuff.” He laughed. I wasn’t kidding, but I let it go. At least he wasn’t little-ladying me.

I test-drove the car, gave it a general look-over, and conferred with the fiancĂ©. There didn’t seem much else to do to help me make my decision, as most of the work had already been done before we’d even gotten there in making sure the car hadn’t been in any accidents or its owner missed any key maintenance requirements. I didn’t even look under the hood, to tell you the truth. Beyond observing that it isn’t powered by squirrels or held together with popsicle sticks and duct tape, there isn’t much more I could’ve done but say, “Yep, that’s an engine all right!” Everything checked out. After a small amount of haggling (just enough to make both sides of the haggle feel like they’d scored a small victory), the car was mine. Good; with any luck, I won’t have to do that again for a while.

As we signed the paperwork, my old car sat just outside within our view. It did not look forlorn to me. It looked like an old car. That said, it was a car that had taken me from the end of my Manhattan girl-about-town days to rural Illinois. When I bought that car I wasn’t a runner, hadn’t written any books, and was moving away from a serious relationship that had disappointed me for not being what I needed it to be. All that’s different now, and while the car had really nothing to do with those changes, it’s still a marker of sorts, something tangible to remind me where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

I have given my new car a name, The Eggplant, not out of sentimentality but because, well, you’ve just got to see it. While we’re at it, we can see what the next 15 years bring for it and for me.

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