Essay: A Belated Birthday Address

On April 26th I turned 34, an age I like because 3 is a prime number and 4 is the square of a prime number. Both digits add up to 7, which is also prime (hell yes), as well as an auspicious number in several schools of esoteric and hermetic thought. Of course, next year is 35, in which both digits are primes (sick) but their sum is not (bummer). However! 8 is two cubed, and that’s still pretty good. Cubes strike me as even more esoteric.

And so, I’m firmly in my mid-thirties. That doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me except that now I have to care about the lumbar support on my desk chair in a way I didn’t before. Turning 34 has, however, gotten me thinking: how long before I can justify becoming a model train guy? I used to think I would wait until about 40 for that, but with the turning of another year plus having a nephew that will be ambulatory in short order, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t speed up the timeline some. I don’t wear white New Balance sneakers and I have little interest in either the Civil War or World War II, so I need something for some uncle cred. I already like birdwatching and, now, stamps, so maybe model trains are a logical next step?


For the last five years or so I’ve been participating in Postcrossing, an online platform that allows members to send and receive postcards from all over the world (maybe a great-uncle type thing to do). I love digging through my postcard collection to find the perfect one for each new address I get, and it’s always fun to get a card from someplace far away in the mail. But it isn’t just about the cards. I also love to see interesting stamps from all over and use nice stamps on my own cards. For my birthday this year, my lovely wife, M, got me some vintage US stamps. She also gave me some old canceled stamps from different countries around the world. One was a set with a dinosaur theme that included a stamp with a pterosaur on it from, wait for it, North Korea. Badass.

When I opened the little packet and realized what was inside I spent about a half hour ooohing and ahhhing over the postage. I would never have thought to buy the foreign stamps for myself, which made the gift all the more special. After arranging them all on the table I cracked up because of how silly I felt. Apparently I’m a character from a Charles Dickens novel: morally complicated, kind of stuffy, living in a hell-world of hideous economic inequality, and pumped about old stamps. I also wanted a pudding (flan) for a birthday treat, which made me feel like Oliver Twist or something. M was relieved when she saw my reaction to the stamps – she thought I would think they were silly, but they turned out to some of my new favorite things.

I haven’t arranged the stamps in an album yet, but it’s on my list of things to do. Again, as a Victorian child, I love an album. I have binders of postcards from my several years of Postcrossing and an album of ticket stubs, money, and other paper ephemera from my various trips. Almost all of my class notes from undergrad and grad school are squirreled away somewhere in plastic bins or folders, as are old journals. My photographic experiments with a Fujifilm Instamatic camera that M gave me a few years ago (she’s a talented present-giver!) now nearly fill three of their own albums as well. But for all that, I don’t think I could ever be a serious stamp collector, even though it would give me a reason to buy yet more albums. Not least because I don’t have the money to “invest” in stamps – or anything else for that matter, although I will say that anyone who wants to give me a gold Krugerrand would get Christmas cards from me for the rest of my/their life. (To be clear, not because Krugerrands are made of gold but because I think the name is funny, the guy on one the face side has the beard-but-no-mustache look of the seafaring people from The Wheel of Time, and the other side has a Springbok in the process of “pronking.” Plus, it’s legal tender in South Africa but doesn’t have a value stamped on it, which I like for some reason.)

While I’m kidding about the Krugerrand (mostly), I do often find that the things that most interest me aren’t the things that command the greatest price or airtime. I don’t mean the platitude that “the best things in life are free” or some variation on that theme. That old chestnut is simply not true – a postcard from a botanical garden, pistachio ice cream, a nickel flattened by a train, or a movie ticket stub that you find inside a used book aren’t free, even though they’re some of the best non-people things I can think of off the top of my head. Rather, I mean that collecting things for the sake of completing a set, or because of some externally defined standard of valuation, strikes me as odd. What if the other members of the set are ugly, or expensive? Or, the worst possible thing, not interesting? If I’m going to collect anything, it’s going to be because I like the particular items in question, because I find them interesting – I don’t really care if they’re valuable.


In my office at home, on a high shelf in the closet, I have a box of treasures. One of these is a McDonald’s toy shaped like a Big Mac that “transforms” into a dinosaur. I have had this toy since I was in the single digits in age, and it fascinates me. The box also contains cards, bits and bobs, and various other trinkets that I have accumulated over my life and that have either sentimental value or interest for me. None of these things is valuable in the monetary sense (I think), but I nonetheless like to think of this box (which started its life as one of those picnic boxes for a wine bottle and later carried, hilariously, a small hookah) as a kind of mobile Wunderkammer [literally “room of wonders”], a nomadic Cabinet of Curiosities that I’ve carried from one residence to the next over the years.

I don’t open the box to look at the things inside very often. It’s actually kind of an intense experience, bordering on the unpleasant. There is lots of Time in there, and Memory. In a way, I’m not sure I even keep it for myself. Maybe this is a bit Romantic of me, but I think I actually keep the things inside the box for posterity. I think that’s also why I’ve never been happy with ereaders and prefer physical codices, why I keep ticket stubs, why I take notes by hand, and why I’ve kept journals and notebooks – sometimes obsessively – for most of my life.

Last night I was working on my card catalogue (about which more in an upcoming series) and came across this quotation from Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society:

The imperative of expansion, transformation, and self-reinvention – of which depression is the flipside – presumes an array of products tied to identity. The more often one changes one’s identity, the more production is dynamized. Industrial disciplinary society relied on unchanging identity, whereas postindustrial achievement society requires a flexible person to heighten production.

The Burnout Society, 44.

I would substitute “hyperindustrial” for “postindustrial” here, but the point remains the same: personal identity has been well and truly hooked to market circuits of consumption, and the more identities change, the more there is to consume. To “Become a Stamp Collector,” I would have to buy: albums, stamps, other people’s collections, books or memberships to websites, flights to go to conventions, etc. A pretty penny for somebody, and more or less trackable and calculable. If Amazon sees me order a stamp album, you can bet your britches that my recommended items – now populated by books on Hegel, knee compression sleeves, and gardening stuff – will soon include reference books on stamp values, and maybe even some numismatic stuff (why not? I collect stamps, don’t I?)

I don’t think Han’s point is to argue that we should work to have a permanent, unchanging core Self that stays consistent across time. At least, I would hope not if he considers himself a faithful reader of Heidegger (which appears to be the case). Rather, the point is that hyperindustrial society incentivizes changing one’s “identity” via consumption, on a whim, to drive consumption, which then dynamizes production. With a weekend, a new Twitter account, and a few hundred dollars, I could become a sneakerhead, an “energetic healer,” or (God forbid) a crypto guy. The danger, then, is that I would mistake my consumption habits for truths about myself, rather than see my “self,” such as it is, as a process of projecting into a future that is not yet known and remains unforeclosed. The self, on Han’s account, is plastic. I would argue that this is not new to hyperindustrial or postindustrial society, but rather has always been the case. Capitalism has just established a parasitic relationship with this pre-existing aspect of human Being.

So what does this have to do with stamps, exactly? Or that weird treasure box I’ve described? If human Being is plastic enough that it can be harnessed and channeled via patterns of consumption as a vehicle for the flow of capital, this Being can also be modulated, molded, formed, and shaped in other ways, including through one’s immediate surroundings: one’s objects and the significance they have. While I’m sure that the sneaker guys who buy and sell and collect shoes take some sense of abiding satisfaction from that pursuit, it still strikes me as having capitulated to the insistence of hyperindustrial capitalism that its cellular components (us) exist the way it wants us to. It would strike me as a bit sad, although maybe this is unfair, for a sneakerhead’s grandchild to find grandpa’s shoe collection in a storage locker and spend time poring over it, reliving and widening their experience of their grandparent.

The things I keep, that I find valuable and wonderful, help to bolster and reproduce my own sense of self and the kind of Being I want to inhabit. But I also think of these things as affecting the Being of those who come after me. What will my grandchildren think, for example, of the reading log I’ve kept on index cards for years? For one thing, they’ll probably find it a pain in the ass that I insisted on keeping these records of paper, rather than in an Excel file. But, hopefully, they’ll also see the way my handwriting will change over time, growing spidery as I age until eventually someone else has to write the cards for me. Maybe they’ll think of the dusty shelf where I kept the box as it filled up, and then think of the shelves full of books that I insisted on long after physical books on paper were “practical.” What will they think of the odd assortment of bits and bobs in my carry-on Wunderkammer? The funny rocks, the stamps and bookmarks and ticket stubs and boxes of notebooks they’ll find when I’m gone? Will they be able to simply throw these away?


I’ve given the ideas above a fair amount of thought over the years. One of the handful of things I’ve published is a story called “Going Home” that touches on the sense of taking things with one, especially inconvenient physical objects. You can read it at The Ekphrastic Review here.

I didn’t set out to write something “serious” when I started drafting this essay. I guess things just turn out that way sometimes. One last point before I leave off philosophizing, though. If you weren’t convinced by my meditations above, think of it this way: M gave me some old stamps for my birthday, and from one stamp, for reasons singular to my own strange reality tunnel, I wrote an entire essay. How’s that for the importance of physical stuff?

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