One Guy's 'Gear Thing'

For some of us, the desire to accumulate things started at the breakfast table, reading the offers on the back of cereal boxes. For others, it was reading the ads in the back pages of Boys' Life or Popular Mechanics. "Build a Helicopter in Your Own Basement! Complete Plans for Only $29.99!" For me, it began when I discovered the tent section in an old L.L. Bean catalog - and dissatisfaction.

My blanket-and-string attempts at tentmaking bore no resemblance to the elegant lines of the family-sized tents in the catalog. They seemed geometrically perfect in every respect. These tents came with front porches, peaked roofs, windows, vestibules, floors. I wondered at their smooth sides and roof lines draped between the towering poles. With their taut, perfectly symmetrical guy lines, these were canvas temples of Luxor. And they were waterproof.

On the following pages, Bean's offered every imaginable accessory for camping, including the kitchen sink. I wanted it all: a tent with camp stove, camp reading light, camp sink, camp table, and 40-piece camp cook set. What Mom allowed was the waterproof match container with compass and whistle. But what I call the "gear thing" had begun.

As every American man-child knows, catalogs are the heart of the "gear thing." Anything and everything looks good in catalog photos. So good that it becomes easy to convince yourself of the need to own at least a few of the items depicted.

One hardly stops to realize that the catalog is a commercial outlet, not a lifestyle consultant. The gear thing is a dream of constant "possession upgrade," life enhancement. It is toying with "life as it ought to be." It is buying into a vision quest of materiel perfection. As if to say, "I am the items in the catalog," or "L.L.Bean, c'est moi."

By sixth grade, my gear ambitions had refocused, as they would semiannually throughout my life, on drum catalogs. I had just started drum lessons. My friend Rick brought the Ludwig Drum Company catalog to science class. Rather than perform Miss Geiger's surface-tension experiments (floating paper clips on the water in a Dixie cup), we surreptitiously ogled the monster drum sets in the catalog.

I had my eye on the double bass drum, double tom-tom, blue-sparkle rock-and-roll drum kit as played by my hero, Ginger Baker. I was smitten - not just by the staggeringly extensive drum sets in the catalog (more things to hit than you could shake a stick at), but by the concept of owning more and better gear. That year, despite my request for all that was on page 27, I only got a snare drum for Christmas. I had to make do. But it was a start.

Every guy I knew had a catalog as constant companion: model rockets, bicycles, musical instruments, even motorcycles. When you reach adulthood, it only gets better. Gear begets gear.

For instance, once you subscribe to a magazine, the catalogs begin to find you all by themselves. Once you buy a home, become a parent, a mortgagee, a credit-card holder, a car owner, etc., those catalogs seem to know what you need: wrought-iron lamps, pine armoires, fountain pens, picture frames, containers for all the other gear, even catalogs of gear catalogs, to say nothing of clothing, books, and CDs.

L.L. Bean now sends me a catalog for every outdoor sport, every season. And the folks at Bean's seem to know where I'm moving even before I do. The catalogs await our arrival even in a cross-country move!

My friend Larry, a blues guitar player, has taken to the Internet for his gear browsing. He can check out custom and vintage guitars in cyberspace and even download sound samples from the objects of his gear affection. The Internet may be presenting us with the ultimate catalog/emporium: millions of interactive displays; gear that can be seen and heard; gear that talks to you.

My son's gear thing began in the usual manner with software catalogs. But he will mature in this era of cyber gear. In fact, I don't notice many companion catalogs around his middle school, but do hear plenty of talk about "cool Web sites."

In addition to our on-line shopping for everything from groceries to books to computer software to bagpipe accessories, we have become collectors of on-line locales. Here, objects are replaced by various kinds of knowledge and intellectual resources. Gear has become information, but we seek to possess it as if it could be erected in the living room. My son knows where to go to peruse thousands of quotations, look up the temperature in Juneau, Alaska, see a real-time picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, or download recipes for chocolate cakes.

BOTH he and I have become hoarders of Web addresses. A World Wide Web site, of course, is nothing more than someone else's hoard of information, some of it arcane, some interesting, some interactive, but a hoard nonetheless. Ephemeral digital gear begets ephemeral digital gear. Though called a site, is there any "there" there? My son is quite fond of his icon collection, downloaded from someone else's graphics hoard, so it would seem that something is there, since it can be moved to here. And it's taking up acres of space on his hard drive.

Though all the Web-site addresses and data don't compete for physical space around the house, as do the items from the catalogs, they do compete for attention. Every time I turn on the laptop, I'm tempted by cyber gear. Shall I do something useful (like write a letter to Larry), or cruise the World Wide Web in search of cool blues record sites?

Gear wins.

The problem is that the cyber gear is awfully well integrated with life's other activities: It's all on the same desktop, as it were, seamlessly juxtaposed with work, play, friendship, and household finances. Ultimately, the gear thing forces some choices: passivity or activity, self-absorption or self-expression, getting or giving. Perhaps there's a Web site that could help me with this gear problem:

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