Friday, July 30, 2010

The upgrade generation

I am old. Not, moss growing over me as I sit in my rocking chair decrying all these new-fangled inventions old, just middle aged old. I am, however, old enough to remember when the things you bought would last. It’s not that you didn’t want to upgrade to something newer, it’s just the thing you bought was well made, still worked, and you really couldn’t justify upgrading it. This concept is completely foreign to most people raised in the computer/cell phone generation.

See if this sounds familiar. You can’t wait for the two year contact period to end so you can get the free upgrade on the latest and greatest new smart phone. Remember when you upgraded to your current phone? Remember how this phone was so great, so superior to your old phone? Now, it’s just a phone. It doesn’t have the ability run the coolest new applications, or apps as they say, and it doesn’t stream live video. No matter. Twenty months ago, it was the latest, cutting edge device, and it was free when you signed up for a two year contract. Now, it’s a piece of junk.

The same goes for gaming consoles. I’m old enough to remember staring in awe at the white dot flashing across the screen of my Pong game. Then came all the gaming consoles. Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Playstation, Xbox, and now, Wii. If you have a Playstation1 today, it might as well be a boat anchor.

Don’t get me started on computers. My laptop I bought back 2003 is a doorstop. Actually, I upgraded the software, and until recently, it still did some of the accounting work for my church. It is almost useless now. It still runs fine, it’s in great shape, but the technology has evolved so rapidly, it's now functionally obsolete. The dual processor PC that I bought two years ago is showing its age, as the once lighting fast processor speed and vast memory are now just enough to keep up with the latest software.

If it has a central processor, you had better enjoy fast, because soon it will be off to the high-tech scrap heap. For my son’s generation, this is this way the world works. You buy it, use it, and start looking for its replacement immediately, or at least in a few months. This was not always the case.

Before, iPods ,iPhones and iPads, there were radios, rotary phones and books. A transistor radio would last decades. If you go to a Goodwill store, you can probably pick up an AM radio made in nineteen seventy-four. Take it home, plug it in, and it will still work. If you had one those heavy, Bakelite rotary phones from the nineteen sixties, you could hammer a nail into the wall or crush the skull of a burglar with the handset, and it would still work. On my bookshelf, I have a pocket Bible given to me as a gift. It was printed in nineteen thirty four. It still works too.

Being in the telecommunications field, I have to stay up on the latest technology. Nevertheless, I am also a fan of artisanship, craftsmanship, of finely made things, things that will last generations.

I have a Winchester shotgun that is twenty years older than I am. I refinished the stock last year and it looks wonderful. It will last a few more generations, and break a few more thousand targets if I take it out the safe enough times. I have a saddle that was made for me seventeen years ago; it’s just now getting broken in. If I could find a nineteen forties era Martin guitar, or a nineteen sixties Fender Stratocaster, or Gibson Les Paul, I would sell all three dogs, both cats, and a few cows, to buy a handmade guitar like that. Well, I would have to clear it with the boss first, but she knows how much I would love to have one.

In our single serving, microwaved, high-speed data driven world, is there still an appreciation for well-made things?

Do you ever look at a piece of handmade furniture and appreciate the detailed joinery, how every piece was hand fitted, shaped, sanded, and rubbed with eight coats of finish, to get it just right? Can you look at a nineteen fifty nine Chevrolet Impala, or a forty nine Mercury Coupe and enjoy the lines, the style, the beauty of a classic car? Have you ever taken the time to read a poem by Whitman, or become wrapped up in a book by Falkner? Can you stand at the foot of a stone bridge and take in the imagination of the designer, the skill of the stonecutter, the hand fitting labor it took to make that bridge, one hundred years ago?

I hope we are not becoming so caught up in the next new thing, the latest improvement, the newest wonder-gadget that promises to make our life better, or more likely, to keep us entertained, that we forget the simple beauty of a well made thing.

Monday, July 05, 2010

A sure bet.

I have never been a big gambler, although I do remember my first trip to Reno as a high school senior. At seventeen years old, I was six feet tall, two hundred twenty pounds and looked much older than I was. My father, for reasons I still haven’t figured out, gave me some of his winnings and turned me loose to gamble. Those first few hours, I was struck with an unbelievable run of beginners luck. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had chips all over the craps table and kept winning with the longest odds. At one point, I had over a thousand dollars in front of me, and thought I had found my new occupation; professional gambler. I was wrong.

Somewhere around three in the morning, I had lost most of the money, but still had a few hundred to take home. My next trip to Tahoe a few years later, when I was twenty-one, I lost all my money in the first twenty minutes at the casino. I had to spend the rest of the day walking around South Shore with just the lint in my pockets. It was great lesson for me to learn. The odds are always with the house.

Casinos are built not on luck, strategy, or skill, but on built simple mathematics. The odds are always with the house, even with the “best” games, your disadvantage is just a little smaller. People continue to gamble, even when they know the odds are against them, because they do have some chance of winning. However, the longer you play; the odds will always catch up to you.

What about a bet where the odds are 100 percent against you. Would you still make that bet? If you were certain to lose, would you go “all in” and bet everything you have?

With that end in mind, I would like to ask a question. I believe it is one of the most important questions you can ever answer. How will I spend my life?

I’m not talking about a career or a profession, I am talking about how you will spend the minutes, hours, days and years that will make up your life. What will you spend them on?

As human beings, we have a one hundred percent fatality rate. We are all going to die. There is no way out of this wager, we cannot elect not to play, we are in this game from the day we draw our first breath. Our bodies will all return to the earth in one way or another. All the possessions we have acquired over the years will be passed down, sold, or simply thrown away. Every physical thing we hold as important, or essential, will become meaningless to us. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “I've never seen a hearse heading to the cemetery followed by a U-Haul trailer.”

This is the wager we are making, every day when we wake up. We seem to be betting that all the stuff we have, all the money we saved, and all the good times we chase after will mean something to us when we come to the end of our lives. This is a suckers bet.

Having had the privilege to officiate the funerals of a few friends, I can tell you from experience, what matters most is what you do for others. With your family, your friends, your community, or your world; do you make a difference? Do you spend all your time, talents, efforts, finances and attention on yourself, or do you leave any room for others?

I know people who spend their entire lives with the goal of an early and comfortable retirement. They work hard to build that 401k so they can one day relax and “enjoy life.” Their focus is spending as much time as they can, doing whatever they want to do. Golfing, traveling, a beach house, collecting classic cars, gardening, or just watching the sunset each evening. This is how you are going to spend your life? What a waste.

As I said up front, I’m not much of a gambler, but If you want to make a wager, how about this. When you are lying in a hospital bed someday, and the doctor is giving you the bad news, I’ll bet the BMW in the garage, or the size of your house will not matter to you at all. What will matter is the peace that will come from knowing you did right by people, that your life had purpose. That you made a positive difference with the people around you, and especially with those you never met.

Sure, you can leave your fortune to charity, or have a lecture hall named after you at your alma mater, but it isn't the same as being actively engaged in making someone's life better right now. Religious or atheist, whether you believe in an eternal life or not, what you do on this planet matters. There are an unlimited number of organizations that would love to have some of your time, talent, and yes, financial support. There is also the neighbor down the street who is going through a tough time, the young person who needs a positive role model or mentor to help them, or a child living in desperate poverty whose life you could change forever with the money you spend at Starbucks each month.

Find a way to contribute to others. Find a way to spend some of those those precious days in a way that lifts others up. This is not about guilt. This is about making the most of your life by helping others. This is about living your life to its fullest.