Friday, June 14, 2013


Spartans make me feel bad about myself. You know the type—people who have exactly seven pairs of pants. They’re the ones with improbably empty garages, knick-knack free desks and tabletops, with drawer space to spare. When you go on a trip with a Spartan they make you feel like a diva because you have three bags, while everything the Spartan needs fits into a little black duffle bag.

Of course, the Spartans aren’t the only ones who have the power to make me feel bad—vegans, people who enjoy volunteer work, the super-green—in our modern world of relentless striving to be improve, it’s not hard to find someone who’s just better at life than you are. But do the Spartans—folks who eschew the unnecessary stuff that bogs the rest of us down—do they have something figured out that the rest of us are missing?

As with lots of other personality flaws, I blame my craving for stuff on my parents. Growing up, our two-car garage was so crammed with stuff that it was practically a geometry problem to get one car pulled in. Being sent to the garage to find something for one of my parents wasn’t an errand, it was an expedition. I was an obedient kid, but with a streak of martyrdom, so I’d always tell them, “Yes, I’ll go get that thing you say you need, but just be aware that I might not make it back. I might get crushed like last time, and this time, the neighbor kid might not hear me yelling. Also I’d like daisies at my funeral, just so you know.”
 My parents were never that impressed with my dramatics, and I always returned alive, though sometimes with a stubbed toe or a shiny new dust allergy. We were just a family who liked stuff. Ask me or my brother about our childhood vacations, and we’ll both have lots of fond memories, but one of the most indelible ones involves being crammed into the backseat, our giant duffles under our feet, a huge cooler between us, and no ability to move more than three inches for the duration of the four-hour car ride. We did not travel light.

As someone who overthinks pretty much everything I have to wonder about that last sentence—about the implications of traveling light versus choosing to tote around a heavy burden. “It’s just a thing,” you’ll hear people say, after a fire or a theft. It’s true—and it’s an easy thing to say, when it’s not your thing that’s been destroyed or lost. Or when you’re one of those folks who just doesn’t get attached to stuff. I’ve always envied the travel-light people: people who don’t seem to need much to be comfortable or happy. Sometimes these people enjoy camping, for example, squatting in the woods with a sleeping bag and a fire and a bag of dried food. Do they commune with nature? Are they somehow a few steps closer to understanding the secrets of the universe because they’re not up the highway in a hotel room trying to figure out how to access the pay-per-view movies? 

I’ve made peace with my non-Spartan nature, though—I realize I’ll never travel light in the same way I’ll never like sports or math or be a good candidate for survival in a zombie apocalypse. The light travelers probably do have some insight that I’m missing—but I’m betting they’ll miss out on some things on the other side too, like the joy and comfort of having plenty of fresh pairs of socks with you on a trip. Nature loves balance, right? At least that’s what I heard on NatGeo channel while I was channel surfing at the Holiday Inn. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Who's Counting?

I subscribe to a couple of fashion magazines. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like I’m all that fashionable. I like and wear Birkenstocks, and if I thought I could get away with it without public ridicule, I’d still wear socks with them. I don’t even own a pair of heels, and the only thing that would fit me at a sample sale is a scarf. Maybe it’s the fact that print is very nearly dead, and it’s like six bucks to subscribe to an entire year of a fashion mag. I usually skip through the fashion pretty fast, but I do enjoy the articles.

Health articles I sometimes skip. I’m not too keen on finding out more about how I got too much sun in my twenties, or the evils of sugar—or, God forbid, coffee. But the other day I accidentally read one in Elle, lured in by the opening description of the writer’s new gadget. Technology, I like. To use and enjoy technology, you don’t have to have zero percent body fat, possess athletic skill, be twenty-three, or have, say, the self-control to never eat carbs. To figure out gadgets, you just need your brain, and of course you have to be able to afford them (they’re still cheaper than high fashion, and spending five hundred dollars on something that can talk seems a lot smarter than spending it on shoes).  

So imagine my chagrin when the article turned out to be about using technology for evil instead of good. The author’s gadget was a UP—a bracelet used to track calories, sleep, activity, and more. (No clue what the acronym stands for. Unending Panic? Unbearably Particular? Unbelievably Pathetic?)
Jawbone's slogan is: "Know yourself. Live better." Not sure this is necessarily a causal relationship.
The device, the writer went on to explain, was one of many new tools for those who are part of the Quantified Self Movement, or Quantified Selfers. The helpful UP is worn all the time, and sends the users “insights”—sound bytes on fitness and health, as well as nudges toward whatever goal the user entered.

This bracelet sounds like a terrible idea to me for a number of reasons. First, there’s the whole “quantified” element: anything that adds more math to my life is automatically suspect. Second, it could just be my overactive imagination, but after reading the article I immediately pictured a dystopian future government jamming one of those things on my wrist, administering nudges in the form of electric shocks every time I tried to eat butter. The “insights” feature would make a fine medium for delivering Orwellian propaganda tidbits from The State. (Maybe the “P” stands for propaganda!)

But I digress. Of course all modern technology could easily be perverted into a dreadful weapon, like the ridiculously named “Thorngate” device on Scandal last season, in which our computers and cell phones can be used to spy on citizens. Could be they already are, but, one would hope, the program at least has a less cheesy name. The real reason I hope to never get peer-pressured into quantifying my self is that it sounds kind of dreadful. A device on my wrist monitoring how fast I walk, how many calories I burn, how much sun my skin absorbed, how much REM sleep I achieved? What’s the outcome here? Presumably, the idea would be to examine the data and try to do better. But the thing is, you’d never be finished trying. The new numbers could always be bested. There are forums where Q.S.-ers can go online and trade data—so there would always be someone else’s numbers to beat too.

The bottom line is, if you like fitness data, or even math, go on with your bad self. Count away. I feel about this idea the same way I felt about video cameras. Rather than having my face stuck behind a camera, I’ll just have the authentic experience, and do my best to remember it, imperfections of memory and all. I’ll take my life the same way—I’ll let my iPod count my steps while I’m out seriously walking—but then I want to shut the step counter off. However many steps it takes to walk the dog, I’m happy to let them go uncounted, along with most of the rest of my life. It’s just Willow and me out for a little stroll. And I’m not counting.