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Letting Go of Cool

Living better by going 'downmarket.'

By James Glave 17 Mar 2008 | TheTyee.ca

James Glave's first book, Almost Green (Greystone/Skyhorse) will be released this fall. He encourages you break out of your own consumer ennui just long enough to buy it.

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Any coffee is fine, thanks.

It was one of those ah-hah moments that only comes along every once in a while; an epiphany about the world and where I plug into it. A dear friend and neighbour was telling me about his family's recent ski getaway. He'd briefly considered heading up to Whistler for a couple of days.

But then he nixed the idea.

Instead, my friend took his family in the other direction, to the same place my parents went schussing when they were courting in about, oh, 1964. The family of four motored to Manning Park Resort, the unpretentious outdoor playground located inside a provincial park three hours east of Vancouver. There's no high-speed express gondola at Manning. There's no "brand concept" retail village. Just a bunch of runs, four cheap chair lifts, some Nordic trails.

"They have board games in the lodge," my friend said. "And pinball machines and a pool table. Everyone up there was hanging out in really crappy and outdated gear. And no one cared. It was really sort of homey. Totally downmarket, you know?"

Yeah, I do.

Unloved by advertisers

I can't put my finger on precisely when I lost all love for conspicuous consumption -- when the last of the frisson and allure drained from shiny new consumer goods and fashion, red-hot destinations, and canned neo-luxury experiences.

Perhaps it began when I entered this current life-phase, with a crushing mortgage and two wonderful small kids who are not quite yet in the school system. Call it the blip on the Doppler radar of my imminent mid-life crisis, but each year I grow older, I somehow manage to make a little less money than the year before.

I've stopped buying the arch, wry, deftly-positioned magazines that I used to enjoy. You know the ones. They're the titles that offer a slightly heightened version of reality: part aspiration, part inspiration -- the guides that used to make me feel in-the-know, charged-up, ahead of the tape. There I was, out front, downloading the cool new shit, achieving the dream, forging ahead in complete control of my destiny, my career, my supercharged epic weekend.

Now, as much as possible, I turn the dial to a blank channel.

I have developed a distaste for everything our system teaches us to covet, which is why I've reached a saturation point with media products that relentlessly chase the affluent consumer. My dream vacation is not at the all-inclusive in Puerto Vallarta, but a dilapidated place I know just up the coast a ways. And though I have no consumer research to back me up -- after all, it's the kind of data nobody wants to pay for -- I suspect I'm not alone.

My gut tells me that I'm part of an invisible, but growing, psychographic. I'm in a segment that nobody wants to target because I'm opting out of as much of all this promised joy as possible. I still live and work in the real world; I'm not naive about my place in the system. Now and then, I still write for some of those magazines. But to me, the good life isn't where the marketing mavens keep insisting it is.

My true desire

I want my experiences and places and purchases to feel honest, comfortable, deliberately human-scale, authentic. I want things that don't ramp up, experiences that can't be licensed or farmed out. I don't want a "grassroots" brand that a multinational might manufacture to put a checkmark on the balance sheet next to my niche, green-leaning, micro-demographic.

I want a pinball machine. One with a broken flipper that only works when you really slam it. And I'm going to be wearing the same pilling sweater I was wearing two years ago. And I'll be drinking a house coffee or the one I brought from home in a thermos, and to be honest, I don't care if it's Starbucks or fair-trade boutique-roasted-whatever. It's just all too much. Can anyone tell me how to disengage from branding's tractor-beam? Because I can't find the switch.

It's a complicated feeling, this uneasy, increasing disconnection from the colourful whirlwind of the marketplace. Some wags might call my leanings irresponsible or knee-jerk, others might dismiss my alienation as simple sour grapes; i.e., "No wonder you're so bitter, chump, you're broke." Others might equate my feelings with "slumming" -- the distasteful practice of obnoxious young and affluent hipsters chasing irony on skid row on a Saturday night. This isn't any of those.

Because if wild success came my way tomorrow, I don't think I'd go back. I've undergone a values-shift, a realization that was perhaps born of financial practicality, but that now feels less and less situationally dependent. It's a creeping disorientation, a mild ennui, a feeling that I really don't need or want the vast majority of things on offer out there. It doesn't matter if they're made of injection-molded plastic or sustainably harvested woven bamboo, or whatever.

I want Manning Park.

No big thing

More to the point, I'm not about to get in anyone's face about it. I don't feel indignant or defensive. I'm not the guy handing out leaflets in front of Costco. Indeed, the last time Buy Nothing Day rolled around, I think I purchased milk and eggs, some stamps, I think, maybe a candy bar?

Here's what western society teaches us: Recreational shopping makes us feel better about ourselves. Debt is just the way you buy things you deserve. Well, friend, the invoice is now due on that way of life. And though I am admittedly up to my neck in hock at the moment for a variety of harebrained and overly ambitious domestic eco-schemes, I feel like something is deeply amiss in our global just-in-time world.

Don't you?

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