This article was published by 99E‘s Sep/Oct 2019 issue. The 99E is a Milwaukie Oregon-based arts and culture magazine not available online.
Walking on Bandon’s beach a few weeks ago, I noticed an octogenarian collecting rocks. They concentrated on the task with a vengeance, never looking up or to either side, and only pausing to drop their tiny treasures into one of several pockets located on their super-nifty, no-doubt-expensive, canvas vest. Not only did it sport eight pockets of different sizes and various toggles, clasps, and zippers, but it boasted a tool belt specially made for those must-have rockhound aids.
I couldn’t suss the beachcomber’s organizing system. One stone went here; a shell went there. Nimble fingers quickly unzipped or unbuttoned or unhooked, and as quickly re-closed, all without the vest-wearer even looking.
As I compared my woeful ensemble—faded jeans with rolled-up cuffs; twenty-year-old sandals; threadbare, oversized hoodie—to theirs, I felt envious. Wow. This person is a SERIOUS rockhound. Look at that gear! Then I stopped mid-squish. Is that not an oxymoron, ‘serious rockhound’? Isn’t rock collecting a hobby? Just how serious has our fun become?
We’re bombarded with ads: designer gear for the SERIOUS runner… for the SERIOUS hiker… SERIOUS cook… or even invalid (the SERIOUSLY ill). NaNoWriMo, the home of National Novel Writing Month and now marketing all year long, encourages would-be writers to buy mugs, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia to show how SERIOUS they are about writing. If you need a T-shirt as motivation, I would seriously question your desire to write at all.
Buying accoutrements for our interests and thus prove to ourselves we’re committed is one thing; but are we also hoping others will believe we’re serious? We might not even have to do anything if the neighbors can see our impressive collection of, say, cycles for every terrain, complete with matching helmets. These items require SERIOUS storage spaces. And a way to bring them with us on the vacays we might take—if we ever get time off, of course. Unfortunately, we must work seriously long hours to purchase, house, display, and insure these toys. No one can see how serious we are about boating, for example, if that boat lives in a storage shed fifty miles away.
It’s not just sports equipment, either. I’ve noticed cooking’s gotten way too SERIOUS. Time was you could buy a decent can opener or a set of measuring cups for a couple of bucks, but those days are gone. Weekend gourmets, who think they’ll create such masterpieces as pomegranate-rhubarb-cilantro chicken on a bed of lightly sautéed ants, have caused prices to skyrocket for the items we ordinary, actual-food-making folks use daily. Color-coordination, I assure you, has absolutely ZERO to do with yumminess. My granny baked for a living; how on earth did she manage with only those basic, non-ergonomic aluminum utensils? Horrors!
It’s scariest for parents, though. If you have children, you’ve experienced the crushing economics of “must-have” lessons, from music to clown school. Parents feel obligated to provide any number of pricy pursuits, with no idea whether their child will even like them. Lessons must be paid for, but so too the shoes; the costumes; the music books; the gas to get there—never mind the untold cost to the environment and dangerous health effects the stress of juggling work schedules, organizing carpools, and breathing exhaust fumes cause.
Who, then, promotes the questionable notion that those who plunge into debt to provide their offspring with a plethora of pursuits are better parents? The promoters are not on the front line of parenting, but marketing. It is not your child’s, but their own financial wellbeing that is uppermost, exploiting every parent’s fear of not providing the best possible childhood experience.
Your child might rather stay home with you. Take that opportunity. If you watch without judgment, you’ll witness firsthand what delights your child. Focus on that. (Be warned: they rarely choose activities you like, or lessons you wish you’d had. Children are individuals, not mini-versions of us.) You might not have to shell out for private lessons, either. Community centers are great places to get excellent classes for reasonable cost. Bartering is another viable option: what can you do that the ballet teacher can’t? (Maybe those color-coordinated kitchen doodads will come in handy after all!)
Marketers have succeeded in convincing us we’ll run like Usain Bolt or play tennis like Serena Williams if we buy a certain brand of shoes, or a NASA-designed racket. A racket’s involved, all right, but a different game altogether. Companies spend millions on brain research to learn how to target their ads to neuron-level, and 1-click systems have us ordering before our higher brain’s reasoning kicks in.
Spending hard-earned cash (or worse, using a credit card so you’re still paying when your child turns 40) is not an indication of how serious you are. Question “put your money where your mouth is.” Actions speak louder than words or money.
Fun needn’t be so damn serious. If you want to run, don old sneakers and jog a few blocks. Do you like it? If you yearn to write, grab a pencil and paper. I assure you, no mug or t-shirt in the world writes novels; people write novels. (Good ones, anyway.) Want to play guitar? Borrow one and see how it feels. We’ve been trained to believe spending serious cash will force us into worthwhile activities; actually, it shows an underlying resistance to them. We always find a way to accomplish our highest priorities: no force required.
Take my beloved beachcombing. In Bandon, I wore no fancy vest. My bare hands scooped up treasures, rinsed them in the sea, and placed them in the pockets of my rolled-up jeans. My ancient Birks didn’t survive the watery adventure, but so what? I’ll go barefoot next time. The point is, I had fun. Seriously.