Burlington County Times, February 8, 2002

“I don’t know how we ever managed without these,” my husband said. He wasn’t referring to indoor plumbing or air conditioning or central heating or cars or cell phones – all of which humans managed to survive without for eons, and all of which millions of humans still lack. No, he was talking about those new flavored tabs that dissolve in your mouth.

It’s amazing how a new product can come along and become indispensable, especially one that we didn’t know we needed until we used it. I feel about Diet Coke with Lemon the way my husband does about Listerine Tabs. What a great idea! How did I ever manage without it!

I quite honestly cannot conceive of getting along without the above mentioned indoor plumbing or air conditioning or central heating or car or cell phone, even though I have been known to do so. Each time, though, was temporary – I knew I would be camping in the Sinai Desert for only a week, for example, and would soon have facilities better than “boy rocks” and “girl rocks.” But in our pampered lives, we think of such luxuries as necessities.

A few weeks ago, my husband took our computer to a neighborhood shop to have more memory installed. When we got our first computer, about 18 years ago, it had 128K of memory. I’m not sure what we now have, but it’s in the high gigabit range. I can’t do the math to figure out how much more we have now than originally without a calculator (another necessity), but it’s a lot. And back then we were sure that the computer we’d bought, a state-of-the-1984-art Apple //c, had all the capabilities we would ever need in a computer. Both of us wrote doctoral dissertations on it, a feat we might not have been able to accomplish without a computer (although thousands of students before us did). We used it to access the precursor of the Internet. We even played games on it. Now, we wouldn’t be able to load even one of the newer games onto that old computer; it just wouldn’t have the capacity to store it.

What really bothered me, though, was my reaction while the computer was in the shop. I was edgy all day, pacing nervously, checking the second floor study where there was now an empty space instead of a hard drive. But I had absolutely no need for the computer that day; I’d checked email earlier in the morning and didn’t have any work due. It was just knowing that it wasn’t available, even for only a few hours, that was making me jittery. It was a definite sign of addiction.

I’ve started thinking about all the other things in my life that I take for granted, but that most people in the world don’t even dream of having. The list is incredibly long. Many really are luxuries and not necessary for survival; indeed, many of them aren’t even all that necessary for a comfortable existence. I know that if I had to, I could live quite nicely without a deep freezer or a satellite dish or a hand-held PDA or a dish washer or even a washer and dryer, but, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to.

Refrigerators are necessary to keep food fresh; antibiotics save lives; telephones, TVs, and cars are every day facts of life in the United States. Living in the suburbs two miles from the closest public transportation, we can even make the argument for why we need two cars. But where do we draw the line? When do we go from being “comfortable” to being “conspicuous”? Do we really need 150 TV stations, when there’s almost nothing on that we’re interested in watching? Does each of our sons really need his own GameBoy? For that matter, does each of them need his own room? I’m sure at some point we’ll decide that each one should have his own computer, for school work. But so far, we’ve resisted even the temptation to buy another TV. We’re one of the only families we know with only one TV. But it’s still a TV with a satellite dish and a VCR and hundreds of video tapes.

One of Murphy’s Laws states that junk expands to fill the space allotted to it. In the same way, our needs expand to be filled by the new gimmicks devised by marketing experts. For example, I would love to get a lap top computer. I don’t need one. But I keep trying to find a reason to justify buying one. Why? Maybe because, like Mt. Everest, it’s there.

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