The Curse of Stuff

                They say millennials prioritize experiences over physical products. I don’t know how you could possibly test a statement like that, but it feels right; anyway, it has a certain truthful ring to it. In general, I think it’s a bankrupt concept to try and categorize and characterize generations, but this is one area that nails me at least. Of course, I’m not technically a millennial by even the most lenient definition, which I believe places the cutoff at 1980. (I miss it by three years, and thus am neither Generation X nor Millennial. 1977 is a sort of globular cluster drifting outside the generational galaxy and confounding all attempts at classification). Still, the idea of filling my house with chunks of plastic and glass mortifies me. I have to say I am constantly shocked at the willingness of my parents’ generation to admit to wanting… things. Their parents were thrifty (in the case of my mother) or poor (in the case of my father) and denied them things. When they grew up, they bought them. In large part my desire to avoid clutter is based on having seen it run rampant in the lives of my parents. Trying to clean out the house of a baby boomer who has passed away leaves an impression. Why did they buy these things? I once agreed to help a friend with a consignment business sift through the storage bin of a woman who wanted to downsize. I stood there in horror, looking at piles of junk. Nothing could make me feel sicker than someone’s life adding up to a pile of commemorative teddy bears. I had to beg off the project.

                So, my children receive lots of experiences. We travel manically, attend sporting events, watch musicals, and eat exotic food. Right now, the kids love it. But the other day my wife bought tickets to see Les Misérables for herself and my son; in the third row. When she told him, he said, “okay,” and asked what was for dinner. I was taken aback, but I tried to see the world through his eyes. At nine, he has hiked the cloud forests of Costa Rica, stood within fifty feet of a California Condor on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and cheered on his favorite team at a World Series game. I hate the idea of spoiling a kid with material possessions or luxury, but have I spoiled him with experiences?

                God, I hope not. One of the joys of growing older for me has been the opportunity to see and do new things. I have a firm no video game policy for my children because I believe people should get out in the world and do real things, with real people. But have I overdone it? Should I be denying my son experiences in order to inspire him later in life? I’ve been trying to make him cosmopolitan, to whet his appetite for life by showing him what is out there, but have I run the risk of sating it? The idea that he may grow up bored of life is more terrifying to me than a mausoleum filled with souvenir shot glasses and back scratchers (my grandmother collected those [shudder]).

                We all react to the excesses and prejudices of our parents. I see a cycling between belief systems. For example, our parents (the boomers that is) divorced each other at the drop of a hat. The rates have stabilized as the children of these broken marriages have grown up with the knowledge of the costs of those choices. We choose our values for ourselves in the modern world and I assume this nascent generation born in the 2010s will do so too. But how? They might smoke because we rejected it. They might look at the ubiquity of tattoos today and react with ridicule. Maybe they’ll want to bring back tinsel for Christmas or move to the suburbs in droves.

                Whatever it is, it’s bound to be both unpredictable and revolting. In other words, we’re not going to like the way they react to what we are. Why would we? That’s the point after all. And there’s no way to shape our behavior to avoid it. Whatever we do, they will respond to and reject.

                I’m imaging a visit to a McMansion sometime in the 2050s, the cabinets filled with Hummel figurines, Starting Lineup action figures, and hundreds of boxes of unopened appliances with every imaginable culinary purpose. There goes that shudder again.

                But so far, my son at least seems to be making the right decisions. He piled up gift money from Russian relatives over the holidays. I had a note of how much and had no idea what I might do with it. The stockpile of cash was going to not only most likely be used for more plastic trinkets while at the same time diluted my ability to influence him in doing the things like math practice that earn him stickers. (Those are our family’s currency for rewarding good behavior.) Then he surprised me by suggesting that he use the money to get tickets to a Nets game. He used nearly all of his horde to buy a ticket for himself, and he had a night with his mother all to himself. The Nets came back from behind and beat the Hawks and they got to sit across the court from Kobe Bryant. My son used the remainder of his money to buy a cap. If you ask me, that’s what money is for.

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