The Magic of Ordinary Objects

Picture me marveling at the wonder of text, impervious as it is to the law of supply and demand. No matter how much we write, we want more. And by more, I mean 3.6 trillion words we produce every day. The foaming Niagra of writing, as Clive Thompson has put it. But in the many places Thompson talks about writing on the internet, he also raises a couple of other points worth considering. First, he’ll see your 3.6 trillion words and raise you one Sturgeon’s Law! Named for Theodore Sturgeon, a science-fiction author, this “law” can basically be summed up as, 90% of everything is junk. But still. 10% of 3.6 trillion is 360 Billion. In years, that’s 100 billion older than the dinosaurs. Blaghskasdlfjsf. That’s a lot! Second, until relatively recently, once they got past high school or college, most people never wrote a paragraph again. And if you think about it, the majority of human beings who have ever lived never wrote or read a single word. Text is a privilege of modernity, and even if 90% of it is junk, that good 10% is still more than any of us will ever read. And with that, I have the nerve to send you this letter (technically, you asked for it) — something like .00000042% of Sturgeon’s non-junk (if I do say so myself) — a mere molecule in the vast, expanding universe of text. You’re welcome.

CB, May 27, 2016

There is magic in ordinary objects. Things that are simple, that are used often, that are loved, that last; for every year of wear and layer of patina that accrue on the surface, an equal store of irresistible charm and fascination fills an imagined, interior space within them and shrouds them in an aura of enchantment.

Steve Jobs famously called Apple products “magical.” And to be fair, that’s not the most hyperbolic thing anyone of stature ever said about them. Jobs meant it in a Clarkean sense — as in, a technology of sufficient advancement such as to beguile the average user by just, you know, working properly. But when I say magic, I intend a much more mysterious meaning. An ordinary object becomes magical when, despite its ordinariness, it stands out from everyday life. When its quality exceeds its qualities. When it becomes a talisman imbued with all the power of the many moments of your life it has experienced with you.

Some psychics claim to be able to intuit many things about a person simply by touching one of their possessions. A hairbrush, maybe. Or a locket, a keyring, a blouse, a pair of glasses. Somehow these items become sponges of information; perhaps because, without ownership, they are just empty vessels waiting to be filled by a lifetime of private moments. But I wonder, does a psychic ever reach for a laptop or a smartphone? Or is an owner’s unique signature a weak signal lost in the blare of society’s noise? Ordinary objects make for powerful symbols, don’t they? A hairbrush for beauty, for instance. A locket for love. A keyring for secrets. Within each one could be a psychic library of stories, each about us and the lives we live. A smartphone has no such magic. It’s a portal to every story ever written, and more problematic than the immensity of that is the intent. The stories we tell on the internet are the stories we tell. But our things could tell different stories about us, many of them more true than our own.

I have some magical, ordinary things. They’re things I use every day. Things I never tire of using. Things I choose to use over other things I own that do the same thing, perhaps even faster or better.

Some of them are predictable. My notebook, for instance. It’s a 5x8, black, hardbound book with 62 pages of smooth, unlined pages. I carry it with me everywhere. I fill it with notes, drawings, lists, quotes, fragments of writing, ideas, and journal entries. My laptop or my phone could offer me the same thing, in theory — a place to capture my thoughts — but it would also offer me the one thing that would undermine everything the notebook is good for: distraction. The notebook does one thing, one way: thinking, slowly. In it I write (most often) with a black Pilot G-2 pen with a .7mm fine point. Very specific. I have a few other pens I like, but this one, as wasteful as it is compared with my Pilot fountain pen, is just easier to use. It never clogs. It never leaks. It feels good to use and otherwise gets out of the way. My favorite belt, favorite pants, t-shirt, boots, glasses, watch, wallet, and bag are all things I’ve chosen for similar reasons. They’re simple, well-made, and can stand up to everyday use. My #everydaycarry. Like most modern “minimalists,” I’d rather have a couple of pairs of pants and one pair of boots that I can wear over and over again every single day than a wide variety of things. And nobody really notices, because they’re ordinary and they all look the same. I don’t think minimalism works without embracing the ordinary.

Some of them aren’t so predictable, though they’re no less ordinary. My favorite coffee mug is one of two less than three-inch tall, off-white ceramic mugs I bought for less than a dollar. I can’t imagine any other coffee cup feeling better in my hands. And I know that no other coffee cup can take me back to the the fragile, newly single days on which I wandered in to a thrift shop, needing some basic items for the new life I didn’t expect to be building. I’ve used them constantly for the better part of a decade and hope to use them for the rest of my life. Along similar lines, I have an odd lamp in my home office. It’s made of a three-foot high clear plastic cylinder I found in a dumpster in 2003. I sawed a small notch in the bottom so that I could put a very simple, narrow table lamp (that I also trash-picked) inside the cylinder, let its cord run out, and have the whole thing sit flat. Then I used a strip of duotac and wax paper to wrap the outside of the cylinder about 6 inches from the top where the light bulb reaches, so that the light is diffused. It makes for a warm, golden, glowing futuristic-looking cylinder that will always remind me of wandering the streets of Providence with friends in my first year after college. Turning it on reminds me what it feels like to know nothing about anything. Which is still true today, of course, but I’ve just gotten used to it. One other thing of similar value is the blanket we call Alex (longtime readers might remember I mentioned Alex way back when). Alex is an old, faded, very light blue down blanket that my Mom put in my car when I was driving back to North Carolina from Boston after visiting sometime in 2006 or 2007. She had a couple of these blankets. They’re not quite full-size, just shy of it really. Big enough to cover a person but not quite big enough to cover a bed. I don’t really remember why she gave me this blanket. It was snowing and the visit had been emotional and I was leaving and it would be months, at least, until we’d see each other again, and it was just one of those impulsive things a Mom does when she wants to love her adult son and doesn’t quite know how other than to reach back into the protection playbook. You can’t get much safer than you are in the cocoon of an old, well-loved down blanket; one that has covered everyone in the family through nights of sadness, sickness, anticipation, and bliss. A blanket — a given blanket — is the most magical of ordinary objects. This is probably why this blanket has a name. I know, it’s weird to name a blanket. But I was on a roll there, confessionally. So now you know that I name things, like blankets. And Alex is as good a name as any. I once knew a guy who had a pet hedgehog named Brian, which, if you ask me, is weirder than a blanket named Alex.

What I’m describing — this magical ordinariness — is, of course, partly a matter of design. Things that do less tend to last longer, and counterintuitively, offer more. Both because they keep working and because we choose to keep them. Their focus increases their shelf-life because an object designed to do many things tends to offer solutions to short-lived problems as value-adds because their construction — the very qualities of their physical being — just doesn’t amount to much. Things like clock radios and musical toasters — those sorts of things. They’re cheap and silly and destined for the dustbin. In fact, every decade seems to have had its own unique _____ with-a-______ trend. The seventies were all about putting a clock on it. The clock-of-things. By the eighties, clocks were boring but radios were not. So we got radios in showers and radios in shoes. The nineties upped the ante and made everything either a stereo or a little computer. Who doesn’t want a toaster that plays Spin Doctors as it burns your breakfast? I mean, honestly, tell me that the shudder that is about to run through your body after I make you hear “Two Princes” in your head because I quote it — “If you_want to call me baby_just go ahead now” — doesn’t taste like buttery carbon. Oh hell yeah it does. So that’s what nineties-product development was about. By the aughts, we got the internet of things. And to be fair, the idea of connecting a thing to the internet is not always a gimmick. Sometimes it does make that thing better. But not always. The idea of a watch that connects to the internet sounds great because gee-whiz, we finally get the future past Dick Tracy promised us 80 years ago, but then, after we’ve robotically jerked our wrist to attention for the millionth time and not seen what the damn time is but did see that some bot with a bikini-clad lady avatar just tweeted us a link to what is almost certainly porn or a scam, we realize that, yeah, maybe a good, old-fashioned watch might be just the thing we need. You know, because sometimes we just want to know what time it is and don’t want to risk tumbling down the Ubik-hole just to find out. (I speak from experience.) Ah, the internet-of-things. It sounds so useful. When Bruce Sterling mashed up space and time to name the idea of a connected object a “spime,” I wonder if he realized how repulsive that word sounds, and how increasingly appropriate it is as the internet of things covers us in the seductive slime of recreational tedium. The more of that black oil we ingest, the more we believe that our insipid profile pruning is productivity. The internet of things? More like the-distributed-tyranny-of-soul-sucking-distraction. I mean, do we want to live in a world that is so congested with augmentation that we can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not? Oh, and I want you to watch the video at the end of that last link so badly, I’m going to mention it again in the On Screen section below.

But I digress. I was talking about the beauty — the magic — of a simple, unadorned, un-scope-creeped object. Each one I own, whether it’s clothing or a tool, is focused on doing one thing very well and grows in its value every time I use it. I hope to always have them all. Sometimes, when I’m tightening my belt, I look down at the buckle and imagine it worn down after fifty years, and tightening it even more around what I expect will be the slighter waist of a very old man. And I like that thought. Those mugs I love will be even better for my future self than they are for me today, small and light as they are. My watch is kinetically powered; it could last my entire lifetime. And Alex. Sometimes I imagine asking for Alex when I’m dying — should I have the privilege of a quiet, future deathbed — and as morbid as that may sound, it’s a happy thought. Not because objects make for a good life, you see, but because a good object can be a beacon of a good life.

So what are your magical, ordinary objects? Email me or Tweet me and tell me your stories.


On Screen: A couple of short videos to share with you this week. First — and this is one you’ve probably already seen because the Copernican principle of the internet is one is not in a specially favored position relative to a cool video on the internet, therefore one is likely mediocre and wasteful of others’ time when sending links to cool videos on the internet that they’ve already seen but a n y w a y — is probably the best Philip K. Dick adaptation ever made of a Philip K. Dick novel never-written. It’s called HYPER-REALITY, and if it isn’t the current best rebuke of “augmented reality” in existence, please send me links to what is.

Second is an oddity called Inside, by Mattis Dovier. It’s basically a three-minute adaptation of a dream I had once (specifically, on October 16, 2011 — I wrote it down because I was so disturbed by it) in which I started to notice circuitry under my skin and was thrown into an existential crisis about the nature of my being if I’d actually been a machine all along. Aesthetically, it’s Le Jetee meets Hal Lasko meets Ninja Gaiden interludes. And, man, that is a very specific nexus of GenX media right there! You should watch all of them.

Recent Tabs: An average person’s life plan can only withstand 25 seconds of direct questioning. I mean, I’m inclined to crumple into heaving sobs after just one “Why?” So there must be some tough-as-nails existential John McCains in the sample set. The best part are the glowing eyes as they approach in the darkness. “It’s not a yurt. It’s a ger.” Do you have a minute to talk about our Lord and Saviour Edgar Allan Poe? Pretty pictures of computing machines. How can you not make time in your day to listen to Alain de Botton talk to Peter Gabriel about making music? “This is what your life looks like when you are a major dramatist writing plays in Italian and you’re boldly and publicly living-in-sin with a woman who should have been the Queen of England.” Google is doing to paintings what they did with books. This is surely the subject of an entire newsletter to come. There is a video game where you just take care of succulents. Serious dedication to craft. My wife tells me she is 20-30% aphantasiac, which is about 20-30% more than me, I’d guess. The end of public anonymity is nigh. One is not amused. I’m like.

Written by Christopher Butler on May 27, 2016,   In Essays

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