The Best

Dustin Curtis has a small essay up entitled simply [“The Best.”][best]. In it he describes how a three-month journey in Southeast Asia changed how he thinks about the material things with which he surrounds himself: since his belongings were limited to what would fit in a backpack, he had to find, as he puts it *the best* handheld lamp, *the best* wallet to carry money and papers, etc. He is not alone in his search of course. The fundamental fabric of the Internet, in terms of blogs and forums, is made up of individuals embarked upon similar searches: look no further than the number of sites dedicated to “life-hacking” and/or “productivity.” Clearly, a lot of people are seeking out solutions that will fit their particular needs, their particular proclivities, their particular way of working. That is, while Microsoft Word is omnipresent in most writing contexts, how to bend it to your own way of working is a continuing conversation, or what word processing application you could use in its stead that would more accurately reflect *your* way of writing seems a continual search for some. (My recommendation, by the way, is [Scrivener][].)

There are two senses of best here: Curtis seems to be arguing, at times, that there really is a universal best, that if you do the research, you will come to the same conclusions about what is the best flatware as he did. (I could be wrong about my sense of his argument, however.) This is, of course, a bit of Enlightenment residue, and something all successful individuals, especially those who make a living with ideas, are prone to succumb to, if in fact Curtis succumbed to this.

The other sense of best is the sense I was describing above: best *for me*, for my needs, my way of working, my way of living. In that case, I wholeheartedly agree, and I confess that I arrived at that conclusions after too many years, and really more years than I want to admit even to myself, of buying cheap things that I thought would suffice but in the end, didn’t.

It’s not that I didn’t have some early, positive reinforcement that one should find a thing one really loves and buy it when you can afford it and not waste time and money in buying poor substitutes. When I was a graduate student in the late 80s, I stumbled upon an art and drafting supply house in Syracuse, New York. It was an old-fashioned affair with lots of space and an island of glass cases, set in a rectangle, in the middle of the front of the store. It was there, in those glass cases that I first glimpsed a fancier version of the $5 Shaeffer fountain pens that I had started using at the end of my undergraduate training. Some of you will know what these Shaeffer pens are: they were $5 and you could find them at places like the old TG&Y. They were a bit leaky; they didn’t feed well; but when everything worked, they introduced you to the world of fountain pens, which is a glorious world after all, and, for seeking distinction through the color of the ink in which they wrote, you could fill them all kinds of colors.

Under the glass of the case lay the slightly upscale version of the Shaeffers, the Lamy. I bought one, but the nib never felt right, and so one day I returned, screwed up my courage, counted the nickels and pennies in my pocket, and spent my money on a Mont Blanc pen. If memory serves, I paid something like $35 or $45 for the pen. It was an absurd amount of money for me at that time, and most of you will recognize that I was buying at the bottom end of the Mont Blanc line, but it was a real fountain pen, in the sense of having a reliable feed system and a smooth-writing nib. I was hooked.

Many years and pens later I eventually settled upon a [Pelikan M215][], and I haven’t bought another pen since. Honestly.

This should have taught me the lesson I needed to learn, but in the intervening years I spend less money per item but more money in toto on a variety of objects which populate my world. (Okay, *populate* is weird to use there, but it works.) I bought coats that weren’t quite what I wanted, but were, I argued to myself, close enough and an awfully good deal, that I would like them, *well enough*. I bought backpacks and clothes and even pieces of software with much the same rationale. Only always to find myself not wanting to wear them or use them. Only to find myself looking again, looking around, looking for something better.

Well, no more. To some degree, fiscal responsibility has pressured me into some consumptive maturity. And so I save for some items, or, if I find something on sale and it goes over my monthly budget, I forego things in the months ahead in order to pay myself back whatever I borrowed.

What has that meant? The most ready to hand example, thanks to the somewhat cool mornings we are enjoying of late in south Louisiana, is the [Columbia fleece jacket][cfj] hanging over the back of my chair right now. I got it from [REI][] on closeout ($50) plus I used a dividend payout and another discount. I think I payed $35 for it in all. While I got a good deal, I bought it because I have a pair of Columbia shoes that I have had for over ten years that I still use for field work and that will not die and continue to look and feel good. Columbia gear is more expensive than other gear, but I am now willing to save, or shop, carefully, to get exactly what I want. The fleece jacket fits perfectly and feels great: no baggy arms, no overly tight cuffs at the wrist, nice weight of fleece. I’m going to have this thing for years to come and look forward to wearing it every chance I get.

For me, it’s one of my *best things*. The advantage os acquiring *best things* is that it clears up your day, your mind; it clears you from the distraction of looking. It’s a lot like those folks who have routinized their days by wearing the same clothes or eating the same thing. It’s one less thing to think about, to find pulling at your attention. Steve Jobs famously did this with broken-in jeans, black turtle necks, and Adidas tennis shoes. It’s as if you’ve decided *this is who I am* so now you can focus all your energy on *this is what I do*.

[Pelikan M215]: