Last month when Sue was doing laundry she forgot that her credit card was in her shirt pocket, and it wound up getting partially melted in the dryer. The card no longer looked good-as-gold, with its numbers melted off and crinkly, singed edges reminiscent of a toasted marshmallow, so she ordered a replacement card from the bank. When the new card arrived in the mail I saw her absentmindedly putting it back into her shirt pocket.
“Since when do you keep your credit card in your shirt?” I asked. “For as long as I can remember, you’ve always kept it in your wallet.”
“I’m trying some new things,” she said.
“Maybe you should look for a better place,” I said. “If you put it in your shirt, you might forget about it and melt it again.”
She was not swayed by my advice. “Who says that when you do something new, it should always be an improvement?”
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with improvements. As a child I strived to get better at tying my shoes, riding my bike, and crisping black ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. In school I tried to conquer harder math problems and make more aerodynamically accurate spitballs. I lifted weights to get stronger and practiced track so that I could outrun the arm-twisting greasers who were after my lunch money.
The world I grew up in believed in Progress. Our whole culture was obsessed with improvements and we wanted them fast: fast cars, fast food, and fast women. Then fast wasn’t fast enough, so we created instant: instant coffee, instant credit, instant messages, and instant insanity.
In Europe, old things become icons and classics, but in America old becomes obsolete. Engineers plan obsolescence into their products, because they know we’ll desperately desire the new model as soon as it’s available. We’ve become 24 hour a day junkies for whatever is new and improved. When I type “new and improved” into Google (the new and improved way of finding everything that’s new and improved), I get over 11 million links; from new and improved Buddhism to new and improved war.
Somewhere people are devoting their lives to improving everything from iPods to bungee cords. And certainly anyone about to jump off of a bridge doesn’t want to find out they’re strapped to the old, unimproved bungee cords, so Progress continues to be unstoppable. When a table wasn’t good enough for playing games, someone invented the card table, and then the Card Table Xtender. When a rock wasn’t a comfortable enough place to sit, someone invented the chair, which was improved with the chair cushion, and ultimately the super stain-resistant, no-slip Buttgripper cushion. The dog’s water bowl has now morphed into Fido’s Fresh Flow Water Fountain, which pumps water through a charcoal filter to remove impurities and absorb odor-causing particles. This improvement has gone pretty much unnoticed by my dog, who still prefers to drink out of the toilet.
Not only has my generation devoted their lives to designing and buying improved products, we have become the leading practioners of self-improvement. From creativity seminars to inner-bonding retreats, from vision quest conferences to psychic phone consultations, we’re willing to subject ourselves to almost any sort of mental reconstruction, physical rehabilitation, or emotional recycling in order to become better than we’ve ever been. Each of us is on a mystical, personal journey to continuously create our own new and improved selves. And my new subliminal tape series shows you how to do it all in your sleep, for only $29.95 plus shipping.
Maybe Sue is right; every new thing we try doesn’t have to be an improvement. When your Ginsu Bagel Slicer gets broken by the kids trying to dissect a hockey puck, it can easily be replaced by a serrated knife. Or just stuff cream cheese into the hole in the middle of the bagel and don’t bother cutting it at all. When your heated electric ice cream scoop (with ergonomic comfort grip) short circuits in the Cherry Garcia, finish emptying the carton directly into your mouth with a spoon.
Perhaps we’ve already crested the pinnacle of Progress and have started our long trek back downhill into the Valley of the Shadow of the Garage Sale. Instead of lusting after the latest and greatest we can melt our credit cards and make do with all the crap we already have.