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A Bright Idea?

I had never thought of purchasing light bulbs as a daunting task.

But while settling into my new country of residence, acquiring these little tubes of glowing gasses has proved to be quite the ordeal.

Bayonet style. E14 screw-type. Energy saver. Halogen. Small bayonet style. 40 watt equivalent. There is more variety here among light bulbs than there is among colors of umbrellas.

We have bought and returned many light bulbs over the last few weeks, and each purchase and each refund come with a tinge of anxiety. Is this the right bulb? Will we find the right one this time?

Pitiful enough, once we find that we have indeed purchased the right kind of bulb, I’m keeping the empty packaging, and labeling it with which fixture in the house this bulb is the appropriate one for. I’m really hoping to avoid future stress when it comes time to replace them again.

I have no idea why there are so many styles of light bulb. I don’t see why a particular lamp or chandelier couldn’t have been fitted with a slightly different socket in order to promote a more universally acceptable bulb type. Nevertheless, the variety does exist, and we are the ones who must reach back into our human heritage as hunter-gatherers in order to obtain the correct mysterious glowing orbs—be they candle-style, round, flood-lamp, or loop.

Have we made things needlessly difficult for ourselves? Although we often herald variety as a virtue, have we really obtained something so laudable?

A recent documentary on the wholesale store Costco revealed that part of their success is not to offer 5 different brands of ketchup. There is one choice alone…and consumers are grateful for it. No time or energy need be spent comparing prices or quality; if ketchup is on the shopping list, it is located on the shelf and put into the cart. No dilemma. No debate.

I spent four hours just at two different stores today: one, a hardware store; the other, a grocery store. Which paint to buy? Which potato chips? What’s the best deal on tissues?

We tend to equate choice and options with freedom. But we fail to recognize the tyranny of variety. Besides inspiring severe cases of “decision constipation” (as my father-in-law would say), having many options just opens the door for uncertainty and regret. No one ever wonders if they bought the wrong ketchup at Costco. They got the only one available, and it will have to do. “Why didn’t I buy the Kleenex in the pink box without lotion?” “I knew I should have gotten the semi-gloss black paint and not the ebony wood stain!”

But we insist on making the choice for ourselves, requiring manufacturers to present us with super-eco halogen light bulbs guaranteed for 10,000 hours of use, and also regular eco mini-fluorescent bulbs rated for 6,000 hours. Apparently, I want to be the one to decide if my bulbs will need to be replaced after 14 months of round-the-clock use, or only 8 and a half.

Thankfully, I sit here in my living room, knowing that every fixture in my house now has the appropriate bulb (though we still have one or two incorrect ones left to return to the store). I have survived weeks of hunting and deciding. But it’s not over yet.

Next week? It’ll be time to purchase some flashlights.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Life

 

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Acquisition

I’ve often wondered about hobbies. I think it is life-enhancing to have things that I invest in and enjoy outside of work. I struggle at times to see the raw utility in such endeavors, but I do believe that they contribute to a higher quality of life, providing avenues for connection and relationship with others, while also serving as an outlet for creativity and a forum for self-improvement even.

But there is one hobby with which I am especially struggling. Coming back to America, I’ve seen just how frequently shopping serves as a hobby.

Going to a mall on a weekend or even after working hours on a weekday and observing the incredible numbers of people who spend their off hours perusing the racks of their favorite department store caught me by surprise.

Is the acquisition of items really a hobby? When I think of hobbies, I usually consider various creative or entertainment pursuits. True enough, many people collect various things–I myself have a DVD collection that surpasses 650 titles–but I’m still not sure that mall shopping qualifies as a life-enhancing hobby.

When I was younger, I was a bit of a mall rat, prone to spending weekend hours at the mall’s video arcade, toy shops, and bookstores. But I still wrestle with seeing adults spending their leisure time in the checkout line.

Certainly, some shopping is necessary. Our modern culture has structured society such that we use commerce to enable specialization in our occupations which requires us to acquire the goods needed for survival from others, and we use currency to help regulate and balance that exchange.

But I see shopping that goes beyond acquiring items of necessity.

My wife is a deal shopper. She is excellent at online research and uncovering good bargains. She saves us a lot of money on things we need to purchase, and helps to bring some optional items within economic reach for us.

But she isn’t a rampant shopper. The credit card balances are always sensible and paid off each month.

What I’m confused about is another kind of shopping. The hobby-shopping seems to be an exhausting, ultimately unsatisfying hunt to purchase items that are not needed, and perhaps barely even wanted. It seems that the pursuit itself is a large part of this activity, yet it must be culminated by the swipe of a card or the closing of a cash drawer or else the time investment proves additionally life-draining.

Have we lost our imagination, our desire for creativity? Is such shopping not all that different from mindless TV watching, even if more active?

Acquisition drives much of our work ethic and economic views. Must it also dominate our leisure pursuits as well? Or are we so unable to turn off our vocational selves that this predilection for acquisition necessarily spills into our off-the-clock hours as well? Indeed, perhaps hobby-shopping is the simple result of our employed selves: we work to shop. We acquire for our employers that we might acquire for ourselves.

My wife and I occasionally have dates that end up being little more than shopping trips. Sometimes, this is okay–we’re fulfilling the necessities of life, and doing so together. But at other times, it turns out to be a rather unfulfilling venture, bereft of any benefit to our relationship, rest, or refreshment. Thankfully, such dates are rather rare.

But I’m concerned that hobby-shopping all too frequently becomes the default activity for many people. Without the drive or the energy to engage in a more life-giving pursuit, the car automatically arrives at the mall parking lot and the credit card leaps forth from the wallet, slipping silently through the machine while the bags of purchases accumulate on our arms and serve only to exhaust us further.

 

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Life

 

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A Culture of Returns

My wife was out yesterday morning making returns.

There were several items that were gifted this Christmas season that weren’t quite right, so she made the rounds (to 4 different stores, I believe) in order to return them.

Having lived overseas for sometime, I can definitely say that the culture of returns is one of America’s defining qualities. It was somewhat of a shock to see how, on such a regular basis (not just at Christmas time), people purchase items with a strong expectation of being able to return them if they don’t work, or if they don’t like it, or if someone else doesn’t like it, or….

I wonder what kind of impact such an expectation has on a culture.

When you can always get a refund, when you can always go back and act like a purchase never took place, what does that do to our perspective?

One of the mottoes of modern commercialism used to be “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware!). But I can’t imagine that this cliche still retains its prominence in our product purchases. More fitting is probably the saying, “Many happy returns!” With the nearly unlimited opportunity for making a return, it seems to be that there is actually very little risk involved in buying something today. There is really not much need for caution, or even doing a little research and looking into a particular product before taking the plunge and plunking down the plastic.

Even patience is no longer required. Go ahead and buy on impulse without awareness of what you’re getting yourself into, because you’re really not getting yourself very deeply involved at all: if it doesn’t work out, take it back.

Americans like our variety. We love having a ridiculous amount of options available to us; we feel like choice is a right. We like to be able to choose which one we want, and then recover without consequence if we made a poor selection. But seriously, how many different varieties of Italian salad dressing do we really need?

We buy. We don’t like. We return. (Though that does get a little tricky–but not impossible–with salad dressing.)

We buy. We change our minds. We return.

We buy. We come to our senses that we have vastly overspent for something we don’t really need. We return.

We have a desire. We have an impulse. We have a need to be fulfilled. We buy.

And then someone else (spouse, parent, wise friend) makes us return.

All better. The credit is charged back to our card. The cash is tossed at us from the till. There’s no more guilt. No more evidence. No harm done (except perhaps a restocking fee).

Where is the need for wisdom? Where is the need for patience? For careful consideration? Where is a right sense of value, an intentionality in how we use our paycheck?

All of these are rendered unnecessary, thanks to our culture of returns.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in Life

 

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