Leaving the Material Girl


Sitting in a hospital waiting room isn’t my idea of a good time. But that’s where I found myself earlier this week, waiting to have my eyes examined. I riffled through the stack of magazines on the coffee table, found one that wasn’t too old, and took a seat. The Rotarian. You don’t find that in a waiting room too often.

Waiting rooms are on par with riding in elevators or waiting for subway trains in big cities. You look around subtly, but you don’t really want to make eye contact. And that’s what I was doing until someone I knew came into the room. I was recognized—and caught. I was no longer anonymous. Within seconds I was introduced to everyone in the room, within minutes I was in the middle of a conversation.

Almost everyone in the room looked to be on the far side of 70 years old. I quickly learned from my former coworker that the elegant white-haired woman sitting across from me lived on the same street as I do, and knew the previous owner of our house. In fact, everyone in the room had known the woman who’d owned our house—except me. She was famous around town, I guess. I’d never met her; she passed away a couple of years ago.

As for me, I was introduced as the person “who fixed up the old McKenzie house a few years back.” On hearing that I was interested in old houses, the elegant woman perked up. She was getting ready to sell her house. Downsizing. “Perhaps I was in the market for a bigger house?” Within 30 seconds the whole room was in flat-out sales mode, trying to hook me up with a great new house. I wasn’t sure if I was being teased, or being sold. All I could do was laugh as I felt my face turning red.

The funny thing is, I’m always in the market for a new house. I love houses, mostly old ones. And it runs in the family. My parents were big on old houses, and owned a few. And Sharon’s parents were the same. But frankly, since moving here, the prospect of fixing up another old house is wearing a bit thin.

As the conversation rolled on, I realized that my elegant friend was serious about selling. She said that I might even be interested in some of the furniture in the house, which brought the conversation around to antiques. She’d been an avid collector over the years, and her house was chock full of things she’d picked up—fine china, cabinets and dining sets, the usual sorts of things. She’d been trying to give some of the more valuable things to her nieces and nephews (she has no children), but they were more interested in some dilapidated old pine furniture she’d tossed in the garage. Finally, in an effort to liquidate her things, she’d called an auctioneer in Saint John who told her that there wasn’t much interest in antiques like hers any more. And I knew that to be true, as I’d called an auction house a year or so ago to get rid of an old Victorian couch and chair, and was told the same thing.

It all reminded me of a line a friend tossed out a couple of years ago. He lives in southern England, about a half-hour’s drive from London. For some reason the subject of cars came up, and he said that no one there wants an old car. Antique cars are passé. New is preferred. And the newest exotics are the most preferred. Of course, this is the “Jag-belt” of London, so this would be expected. But still…

It occurs to me that anything to do with the outside world is less appealing these days. Sure, houses still have appeal, despite the recent housing–mortgage meltdown, but there could be a reason for that. Home is where the virtual world begins.

A great many of us spend most of our waking lives in front of screens. At work it’s the office computer. At home it’s the Internet, the TV and the PlayStation. Even when we’re on the road, there’s the iPod to keep our virtual selves engaged—or at the very least our 3G phones with texting and e-mail and soon even movies— while we’re busily trying to tune out the analogue world.

Naturally enough, we’re happy to tune in. But our family members can often resent us disappearing into the Matrix—when they want to do something analogue. Yet when the keyboard is on the other hand, and they’re hooked up, it’s a different reality. “Wait a minute. I just have to check this out…answer this one e-mail…see who just IM’d me… We’re all caught on the same screen.

Kids see this as natural. With cyber-games like The Sims they can create entire worlds of their own, with friends, lovers, live-ins, custom houses, whatever. All 12-year-olds can run fully adult lives, unsupervised, in the privacy of their own screens. And that’s not even considering what stuff they can key in to while they’re on-line, even accidentally. YouTube is a great site for that. You can find the best of the best or the worst of the worst, just a few mouse clicks apart.

Okay, so here we are. This is the end of history as we know it. Not the end of history of politics and wars, as Francis Fukuyama wrote, when citing the defeat of communism as the end of history. It’s the end of everyday history to which I’m referring. Why on earth would our children want any of the old garbage that we’ve collected? Who would want our frumpy furniture? Or old stereo sets? Or book collections?

The real question becomes “Who in the future would want to collect anything?” When the actual world of experience is virtual, collecting goes digital. Digital collections are light and portable. They can even be stored on-line, so you can access them from anywhere in the world. Why on earth would anyone want to collect heavy analogue stuff like cars and furniture? Really. Or even real friends for that matter. It is so much more convenient to meet virtual friends and lovers on-line.

So, Madonna, the days of the material girl are almost gone. And so is the material world. I know that my elegant friend will miss it. I will miss it, too, I think. But I have to wonder if our kids will.


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