On Stuff

This post was written on March 16th when we were in Seattle, but I’d forgotten to publish it.

We spent most of the day walking around downtown Seattle, and going into various nifty little stores. We went to 3 or 4 book stores, a toy store, a record shop, a comic book store, a military surplus store, and one or two others that I probably can’t even remember. It was fun, but I felt a little weird to be constantly seduced by shiny merchandise, only to be jerked out of that fuzzy feeling of desire by another voice in the back of my mind.

Labels found at a used book store.  My two favorite things together!

Labels found at a used book store. My two favorite things together!

That voice is reminding me that in a few weeks, I’ll be moving out of my apartment, and will only be keeping what I could carry with me, or fit in a small storage space. In theory, this shouldn’t be hard. After all, when I arrived in Silicon Valley 4 years ago, all my earthly possessions fit in my car. But that’s since mushroomed to over a dozen car loads’ worth of stuff, and now I have to think about getting rid of things.

As it turns out, getting rid of things is hard. Sure, there’s the psychological aspect to it, what with sentimentality and all. But it’s also difficult logistically. You can’t fit a dozen car loads’ worth of stuff in the apartment dumpster. It won’t fit. You also can’t just dump it on the side of the road; that’d be illegal. Of course, there are people who will come out with a van and carry all your shit away, but they usually just take your shit to the landfill, which is far from ecological. Personally, I’m a big fan of reuse/recycling. While I could give stuff away to Goodwill or Salvation Army, I’m thinking of trying to sell as much of my stuff as possible, seeing how I’m unemployed and all.

The problem with selling stuff is that you begin to think about the monetary value of your stuff. And then, start thinking, why did I pay $200 for that bookshelf when its current market value is $20? Did I really get $180 of value out of it? Anyway, I’ve been doing that kind of ROI assessment on a lot of my stuff, and now when I think about buying anything, I can’t help but wonder how much I’d be able to sell it for, and whether I’d extract comparable value out of it.

It’s an interesting exercise, and a sobering one too. Take, for example, the MacBook I just bought. I paid $1250 and another $250 for AppleCare, for a total of $1500 (I bought it from Oregon so no sales tax). Now, in a few years, I might be able to sell it for, oh, $700. Will I get $800 in value over the next 3 years? Probably. I can do contract work using it, and even if I charged a modest $40/hour, that’s only 20 hours of work over 3 years. I’m sure I’ll get more than my money’s worth. Or that $2000 rifle I bought? Unlike laptops, rifles don’t lose value very quickly (if at all), so I could turn around and sell it for $2000, or more, if I take good care of it. But how ’bout that $17 paper back book I contemplated getting today. I’ll read it maybe once, and I’ll be lucky if I could sell it for $8.50. Will I get $8.50 worth of value out of it? Well, $8.50 is cheaper than a movie ticket, and it would keep me entertained for several hours. On the other hand, why pay $17 when I can get it used for $8.50? Or that $45 game? How much value will I get out of that?

Of course, this line of thinking can easily be taken to extremes. I mean, why pay $30 for a nice meal when I could eat at McDonalds for $3. Do I really get $27 worth of value? How exactly do you attach monetary value to, say, a tasty meal, or not eating crap? Or to traveling? Or to hobbies, or acquiring experiences and skills that aren’t immediately marketable?

The answer is, quite often, you can’t. Even if you can’t buy happiness, it’s an undeniable truth that the things that might make life worth living often cost money. The important lesson here is to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Just because the things that make you a little happier often cost money, doesn’t mean spending money makes you happier. I think it’s important to pause before opening the wallet, and ask yourself “Is this really going to make my life better?”

For instance, that $750,000 dream home you just bought, and will spend the next 30 years paying for. Will it really make you happier? I sure hope so.

Recent Book Acquisitions

We spent a lot of time in bookstores in Seattle and Portland, and I’m pretty sure we went to at least half a dozen used bookstores this trip. I managed to restrain myself, and only bought 3 books:

  • Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich — Part of the reason I decided to quit my job and be unemployed for a while was to think about jobs and money and such. I’ve been fortunate enough to have insanely high paying jobs, but many people in this country are less fortunate. I’m reading this book to learn more about the realities facing the working poor.
  • A Good House by Richard Manning — One of my goals this year is to buy some land and build a cabin on it. Manning did basically that, and wrote about it. I came across this book while looking for A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (of Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), which is similar.
  • How to Put Up Your Own Post-Frame House and Cabin by Alan Roebuch — I found a used copy of this 1979 book at Powell’s in Portland. Manning’s book is long on narrative and short on technical details and howto, so this seemed like a good reference to have.

What if?

I had an unusually hard time falling sleep last night. My mind kept whirring with all sorts of things that could go wrong. What if I end up in a coma before I can elect COBRA coverage? What if I get a flat tire while going 80 miles an hour on the freeway? What if I accidentally hit a pedestrian while driving in an unfamiliar city? What if the economy totally craps out and I can’t find a job when I need to? What if, what if, what if?

These are all good questions to ask when you quit your job and decide to live off of savings for a while. On the other hand, it seemed like the anxiety I was feeling was a little blown out of proportion (seeing how I’m normally not a very anxious person). Somehow being employed gives you a sense of security, which doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. True, spending 8 hours a day in an office cubicle where all possible hazards have been removed, is probably safer than, say, spending a day outdoors. But I am just as likely to get in a car accident if I’m on the road, regardless of my employment status. The economy will or won’t tank, regardless of my employment status. I could fall ill, regardless of my employment status. Hell, you could even lose your job against your will. Life is full of risks, and there are ways to mitigate those risks, or at least make those risks tolerable, but being employed isn’t one of them. Having health insurance, is. Having auto insurance, is. Having warranties on expensive and vital stuff, is. Having a marketable skill is, and so is being wise about money. A job can help achieve all of those things, but at the end, it is merely a means, not the ends.

Laptop and a Rifle

I quit my job at Google today. The place considered to be the playground, mecca, paradise for engineers; I quit. Was it as good as they said it was? Sure, for the most part it was. But after 4 years in Silicon Valley–3.5 years at Yahoo! and another half a year at Google–I got tired of being a corporate software engineer. One day, I looked out the window, and realized there was a whole world out there. I decided I wanted to go out and experience it.

I am embarking on a journey, with a laptop and a rifle. The laptop, because it’s been my ticket to freedom, will keep me in touch with the world, and be my ticket back to civilization when I am ready. The rifle, partially because I’m passionate about guns and shooting, but also because it symbolizes the rugged individualism and deep desire for independence that burns in my heart.

So, with a laptop and a rifle, I will go. This blog is a chronicle of my journeys.