Monday, September 3, 2007

A Nation of Eclectics

by Liz Easterly of Spoonfed

In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, there was a story about a woman who discovers another side of her mother, after her mother's death from lung cancer, through her passion for collecting art glass on eBay. During her mother's final months, she would beg her daughter, from her hospital bed, to check her eBay account and make sure any auctions she had won were paid promptly. She had to safeguard her eBay reputation.

"How could that have been her foremost concern?" Her daughter wondered.

She discovered her mother had spent over $30,000 in three years buying Venetian, Steuben and Depression era glass tsotchkes. In her daughter’s opinion, these were worthless trinkets. Had the cancer consumed her mother's sanity?

After her mother's death, she began to wonder about all those glass pieces, and started to contact her mother's eBay friends.

She discovered that each of her mother's purchases corresponded to an event in her illness: the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer, her mother purchased a light green bud vase and sent it to her daughter. Her daughter promptly put the odd little vase in a cupboard and forgot about it. Another time, she purchased a cut-glass set of port glasses, after her son-in-law had ordered port at the restaurant the night before. She told the seller that she wanted a complete set of glasses to entertain her family.

Another man, her mother's "mentor" in the art glass world, gave her more insight. Her mother, he said, had bought each piece with her two daughters in mind; she was creating a legacy for her girls.

This story got me thinking about the worlds we can create for ourselves, outside of our normal lives, and how technology is affecting that. Are we using technology to isolate ourselves, creating virtual friendships and relationships that cut out the daily human contact with our loved ones? Worse, are we turning into a nation of eclectics?

We can find groups with any and all obscure interests online. Into Barbie dolls? There’s a huge group of those folks. Orchid and bromeliad collectors, Conspiracy theorists. Grobanites. Geyser Gazers, who are into the geysers of Yellowstone. Furries – folks who like to dress up as their favorite stuffed animal.

I saw Bill Gates the other night on “The Big Idea.” Host Donny Deutsch asked whether he was fearful of technology serving to isolate us. Gates seemed surprised by the question.

Technology, he said, allows us even greater access to finding others with interests like our own. Technology just adds to the richness of personal experience, giving us access to people all over the world we otherwise would never have met. It doesn’t take away our need for face to face relationships, and it can never replace human contact, but can only add to it.

There is something compelling in this utopian view of technology. After all, the Grobanites may unite online, but they meet face to face at Josh Groban concerts across the country. Geyser gazers keep in contact online, but they meet up on the boardwalks of Yellowstone National Park. And who can forget the Entourage episode where Turtle and Drama meet up with a furry?

And yet there is something heartbreaking about the woman who kept her passion for collecting art glass a secret from her family. Because they didn’t share her passion? Because they couldn’t understand it? Because they thought her a little crazy? (And let’s face it: $30,000 in art glass is a little excessive.)

In the end, the daughter went home, took out the step-ladder, and pulled the little green bud vase out of her cupboard. She poured in some water, put five pink roses in it, and set it in the living room.

Liz Easterly lives in Denver. Between her one year old son and black lab, there is no time for eclectic interests or collecting, although she does find the occasional chance to write about motherhood, marketing, and writing over at Spoonfed.


Feener said...

very interesting and ejoyable post

Anonymous said...

This story is beautiful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am a Grobanite. And, I lost my mom no too long ago. Some of us Grobanites are already planning a reunion from one of Josh Groban's concert. Curious to know how you know about Grobanites?


Liz said...

I read about Grobanites in Shari Caudron's book, "Who are you people?" She had the time of her life attending several Josh Groban concerts during her research -- she met some pretty remarkable people. It's a great book, all about people with passion.

The Farmers Wife said...

I love this post, such a beautiful and interesting story. It was an interesting questions that Donny Deutsch put to Bill Gates, one that I have wondered myself. Are we pulling away from the people we know in real life to spend more time with the ones we meet online? Putting more of ourselves in to this 'pretend' world and less in to the one we live in?

Evelyn said...

What a wonderful post! As much as I hate to admit it, I agree with Mr. Gates. I also think you may be right when we look for people online who like what we like. I think our real life traps us because most people don't like what we like... especially those of us who have eclectic taste in things by nature! :) Mothers are the exception to that, however, in my mind. There's something about that mother / child bond. But, it's still good to be able to get away from everyone without leaving the house! ;)

Lavender said...

Perhaps it was a way for the Mother to cope with her situation. I think facing that long road, one would need something to distract oneself, otherwise, it could be so easy to dwell and get depressed - which wouldnt help - perhaps that was part of it.
(Being an art glass fanatic myself, I think $10,000 a year to spend on collecting would be wonderful!)
It must just be a part of human nature to want to belong to a group of like minded folk - and the technology of this day and age makes that so accessible.
Nice piece, and very thought provoking - Thank you!

melody is slurping life said...

Perhaps the woman's daughter had a shortcoming in not knowing more of her mother's passion and joy of collecting and of it's connection to the family before her death?

I truly enjoyed the story and your thought provoking post. Technology and the web can be used, as can anything, to distract us from our family and friends, from real life. We have to be in control. We have to choose to live "real" life, don't we?

Anonymous said...

I have never posted to a blog before...too much blah, blah, blah.

This one, however, caught my eye because of the mention of Josh Groban. It is an extremely insightful piece for me, since I am a Hospice nurse, as well as a Grobanite.

I think back to when my parents died and my sister so thoroughly cleaned their house and how I let her keep everything. I have little room for storage and was not sentimental about stuff that I could not connect with. How I wish that my parents had shared their memories more. Perhaps I would have been able to appreciate their possessions more!

I have also met many wonderful friends through Josh and now treasure people from around the world. Reminds me of my ancient days of being a Pen Pal (like in letter-writing...via snail mail). This technolgy is overwhelming, exciting and mind-boggling!

My mother died in 1997 at the age of 83 and was one of the first people to purchase a laptop computer. She loved technology and grieved when macular degeneration took away her ability to see the computer screen.

I love technology too....I guess that I did find something of my other's posessions that I can connect with!

Mama Zen said...

I wonder; did the ebay friends know that she was dying?

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