By Ron Scopelliti

One thing leads to another

Things get stuck in my head. I’ll stumble onto some seemingly insignificant object or fact or quote, and I’ll start obsessing about it. Or, possibly worse, it will set me off on a path of exploration that leads me to other obsessions and musings and ruminations. That was the case when I was out grocery shopping, and stumbled onto a large display labeled: “Squeezable Sauerkraut.”

“Wow,” I thought. “We now live in a world where sauerkraut is squeezable.” Will this come to define our time on Earth? Will the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age be joined by the Squeezable Sauerkraut age? Then, putting it in the parlance of our times, I remember specifically thinking, “How is that even a thing?”

And that last word became the focus of my attention: the concept of “things.” The world is just full of so many things. And we seem to have this innate urge to create new things. You know that this is an extreme tendency now that we’ve reached the point where we’ve created all the obvious things like hammers and toothbrushes; knives and shoelaces. Now, if we want to create a new thing, we have to go so far outside the box that we end up with sauerkraut you can squirt out of a plastic bottle.

If you think I’m overstating the preponderance of things in the world, go to a strip mall. Go to The Crossing at Smithfield, and try to estimate the number of things that are sitting in all those stores, waiting to be purchased by you and me. And that’s not even taking into account all the things that aren’t for sale – the cars in the parking lot, the stray coins lost under the seats of those cars. The other coins still rattling around in the drivers’ pockets, along with a cell phone, a pocket knife, a dry-cleaning ticket, a two-for-one cookie coupon from Barnes & Noble, and a wallet filled with its own collection of things. I got it wrong, before. We’re not the Squeezable Sauerkraut Age. We’re the Thing Age.

I recently got a B&H Photo catalog, which I still look forward to the way I looked forward to the annual “Sears Christmas Wishbook” when I was a kid. The main attribute the two have in common is that they’re both so full of things. The most recent B&H catalog had more than 300 pages of things. And not just pages of one or two things. Picking out random pages, I found anywhere from 10 to 39 individual items on each page, including a rather impressive two-page spread of 48 different camera bags.

While it may sound like I’m being critical of humanity’s need to create things, I have to admit that I’m more needy than most. In fact, before I started mashing together words for a living, I was very actively involved in the propagation of things. When I worked as a manufacturing technician, I helped design, build, and test things that were used to make other things. And many of the things that my things made were, in turn, used to make more things. I can only imagine how many of those “third-generation” things were used to make “fourth-generation” things, and so on.

Part of me thinks that we spend too much time and energy making things, but I suppose it’s because humans have a dangerous combination of raw materials and imagination. When we see a collection of raw materials and undefined “stuff,” and we want to place it into some sort of order – turn it from stuff to things.

And why shouldn’t we? All the stuff is there already – why not make it into things? Of course if you take any given stuff and make it into one particular thing, you’re preventing it from being made into another thing. I suppose the big choice is deciding what things we want to make. You hear that old cliché about turning our swords into ploughshares, but we wouldn’t have to do that if we hadn’t made the swords to begin with.

Is there some more worthy thing we could have invented instead of squeezable sauerkraut? I suppose that depends on how often you make your own Reubens and wieners. I was hoping that by writing this down, I’d be able to make some sense of humanity’s fixation on things, and the drive that led us into the age of squeezable sauerkraut. But, as I should have suspected, I’ve got another thing coming.