Things for Other People

I have no need for a kitchen table. The majority of my eating is done:

  1. From the coffee table while sitting on the couch
  2. From the coffee table while sitting on the floor in front of the couch, because couches are difficult
  3. While staring absentmindedly at my reflection in the mirror over my kitchen sink
  4. From the side of my desk as I try to avoid getting crumbs on my laptop while browsing the internet which I could just as easily do in five minutes once my dinner is done but that’s five whole minutes and it’s so long from now

And four chairs? I have no need for four kitchen table chairs. You know why the table or those chairs exist in my home? For other people. For the once in a while occasion where other people come over and expect somewhere to sit that doesn’t involve pretending they’re in an opium den with no opium. Because society, man. Society.

I looked around the apartment and realized that probably three quarters of my belongings have no reason for existing most of the time. I’m one guy – I don’t need a couch and two chairs and a footrest and a beanbag ottoman. You know what the ottoman gets used for the most? Holding the spare PS3 controller while it’s charging.

Very little of what I own is actually for me. It’s for other people. Chairs for other people to sit on. A tiny little overburdened window-mounted air conditioner so other people don’t die of heatstroke when they walk into my tropical apartment in the summer. Blankets so other people don’t lose appendages to frostbite when they walk into my meatlocker of an apartment in the winter.

There are three different sets of plates in my kitchen cabinets. Three. Different. Sets. Know how many I use? One. One set. One set of four identical black plates. Why are the others there? For when other people come over to eat and don’t want to share plates. The nerve of some people.

I could easily get rid of about half of my stuff and move into a cardboard box but it gets cold here and it’s hard to get a permit to install a proper furnace in those. So instead of adopting a transient nomadic lifestyle, it’s time to start stripping some of this stuff out of my life.

Because it’s just stuff.

Stuff I don’t need. Stuff that exists for no reason other than that other people may occasionally use it. And that’s a terrible reason to own things. Fortunately I’ve always had a pretty strong ability to avoid buying stuff just because I want it – if I don’t need it and it’s not a particularly emotionally compelling work of art, it’s staying on the shelf.

There’s a difference between being able to have something, and needing to have something. It’s important to know the difference. Otherwise you just end up owning things for other people, and those things end up owning you.


White male privilege; Or, the simplicity of equal rights

I rarely consider just how fortunate and privileged I am to be a heterosexual, middle-class white male.

Cops don't pull me over for driving while white. Women don't clutch their purses more tightly as I walk past, fearing that I'll mug them. I've never been killed for looking suspicious on my way back from the corner store with a bag of Skittles.

I get paid on merit, not as a percentage of what someone else makes for the same work. There's very little chance that someone will try to grope me. (Even if I could use a little action sometimes.)

When I go online, I'm not harassed for my appearance, or threatened with violence, or assaulted with slurs based on the type of body I was born with. No one tells me to eat a cheeseburger, go on a diet or make them a sandwich. No one tells me my only place in this world is the workshop or the kitchen or out clubbing gazelles for dinner.

The worst stereotype I might face is my inability to jump.

No one sees the name "Tom" on a job application and immediately judges me like they might for someone named Roshanda.

No one would look at me like a lesser being for buying contraceptives or refuse to ring up my purchase based on their religious beliefs. No politicians have suggested I'm roughly equivalent to a farm animal.

I don't have to endure looks of pity when selecting a form of payment for groceries. So far I've been fortunate enough not to have to choose between a doctor's visit and food. No one is making it impossible for me to exercise my right as a citizen to vote.

I don't have to wait for others to grant me basic civil rights. There are no laws barring me from being in a relationship with a consenting adult1 of the gender to which I'm attracted. There aren't churches full of people lining up with picket signs reading "God Hates Straights". "No hetero" isn't a phrase anyone uses.

I'm a straight, white male from a middle-class background, and that gives me enormous privilege in today's world. It's remarkably easy to take it all for granted, and of that I'm absolutely guilty. But it doesn't have to be that way.

You don't have to be gay to support gay marriage. You don't have to be pregnant to support the ability for a woman to get an abortion. You don't have to be a minority to oppose discrimination. You just have to be a reasonable human being2 with a shred of empathy and the mental capacity to understand that allowing someone to lead a lifestyle of their own choosing will probably not bring down fire and brimstone upon the world.

Humans are humans, regardless of their skin color, their access to bits of paper, their dangly bits or who else's dangly bits they enjoy. That shouldn't be a difficult concept to embrace.

  1. To take it a step further, I'm not even sure why marriage should necessarily be limited to two people. So long as those involved are consenting adults of legal age, who are we to tell someone that you can't love more than one person simultaneously?
  2. This is somewhat kinder language than what I used on Twitter today.

Death and Your Digital Posterity

You are going to die.

It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. But it is going to happen. We may not know when exactly you’ll succumb to the Reaper, but eventually the bell will toll for thee. Then, presumably, those left among the living will be tasked with handling the aftermath.

It’s likely you’ll have left some physical remnants behind – some furniture, maybe a few books, your prized peanut butter jar collection, whatever. We as a species have had some experience with death over the centuries, so the process of dealing with all that stuff is pretty well defined by now. But what about your digital life?

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.

Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all.

Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker, for The New York Times. You should really read that article – it’s quite good.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we started sorting through the various papers and effects she left behind. Among them was a fairly well-documented family tree dating back a couple hundred years, along with a handful of newspaper clippings about this family member or that. But none of it really gives a sense of who those people were, no sense of what their lives encompassed. All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

Continue reading “Death and Your Digital Posterity”


Make 2012 a year of less and a year of more

I want 2012 to be a year of less, but also a year of more. This isn’t as contradictory as it might sound.

Less complaining

We as a people complain a lot. Admit it. Even during Christmas, heavily marketed as the season of giving and good cheer, there was no shortage of complaining about what people got versus what they wanted.

2012 needs to be a year of less time spent bemoaning our own first world problems and more time spent enjoying what we are fortunate enough to have:

The 99% in America are still the 1% to much of the rest of the world; it would do us well to keep that in mind.

Less spending

We’re currently in the midst of one of the worst recessions ever, and no one seems to be able to agree on whether it’s getting better or worse. Unemployment is at its highest in decades. Many people and families are struggling to get by on wages too low for the endlessly rising cost of living.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve never really been poor. My family was certainly never wealthy, but we always had enough. My parents taught me to be responsible with money, to stay within my means and to realize that there’s no need to always have the latest shiny thing. I’ve also been fortunate to have and keep a steady job for the last several years that pays well enough for my needs. There won’t be any private islands being purchased in my near future, but I have the bottom couple levels of Maslow’s pyramid taken care of so I won’t complain.

Even so, I still spent too much in 20111, and so 2012 must be the year of less spending and more saving. Fewer trips to restaurants and more usage of what’s in the pantry. Fewer purchases of stuff that isn’t really needed and more donation of stuff that doesn’t get used. Less reliance on consumerism in the middle of the worst recession this country’s had since the Depression, and more enjoyment of the simpler pleasures that life offers… for free.

Less unhealthy activity

America is fat. Over a third of our adult population is obese. We eat too much, we eat too poorly, and on average we don’t spend enough time balancing that out. So 2012 needs to be the year of less unhealthy activity – less junk food, less soda, and less lounging on the couch. More water, more trips to the gym and more walking or biking (when possible).

But 2012 also needs to be the year of less unhealthy mental activity. I spent too much of 2011 wallowing in my own head, bemoaning the sad state of me. That needs to stop.

More challenges

Lest all that seem too negative, here’s some positivity. The new year is the perfect opportunity to challenge yourself, to set goals to achieve. Not goals like “tomorrow I will (try to) get out of bed.” Challenges like “I will learn a new language” or “I will start that new business” or “I will finally take up fiery sword-swallowing”. Something we know will be difficult for you but that we can accomplish with enough effort. But it has to be difficult. It has to be outside our comfort zones, otherwise what’s the point?

Personally, I want to learn at least two new web coding languages – one front-end and one back-end. Maybe that doesn’t appeal to you. Fine. Find something that does, and go do it.

More exploring

I’m an introvert. My shell is thick and well-weathered, and I stay inside it as much as possible. Being around people is physically exhausting2. This is obviously not conducive to leading a life of adventure.

Most of my life has been spent in Milwaukee, but most of it is still foreign to me. I’d like to change this and really see the world around me. More travel, more exploring outside of the city, outside the state, and most importantly out of the comfort zone. We could probably all do with some exploring of the terrain outside our cozy little shells, no matter how cozy those shells might be.


2012 needs to be the year we collectively get our dren together. Less time spent doing ourselves harm and more time spent doing ourselves and others good. We’re better than we think we are, we just need to convince ourselves of that.

  1. To be fair, my trip to SXSW in March accounted for a pretty big chunk of change that won’t be repeated anytime soon.
  2. I totally want a squirt gun of justice. But it would have to be one of the big, highly-pressurized cannon-style guns. A puny little kids’ toy isn’t sufficient for my needs.

Your House is Burning – What Do You Grab?

A thought experiment, if you would. Your house is burning. What do you take with you? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion:

  • You wake up in your bed and realize there’s a fire you can’t put out; you need to get out.
  • You have a safe exit, but not for long.
  • You have some kind of small bag handy, like a backpack or a pillowcase, that you can throw stuff into.
  • You can only make one trip. Once you’re out, you’re out; no going back in for more.

What do you grab? Continue reading “Your House is Burning – What Do You Grab?”