I emptied my retirement account to buy basketball cards. So exciting.it almost ruined my life


I carried Larry and Magic through the mall, floating an inch above the ground. I bought a pair of pants, some socks, underwear and a few shirts and headed back to the sports store. I stared at the box of Panini Prizm basketball cards behind the counter—I knew nothing about them, but I never bought basketball cards as a kid; Now I have this free airline money. This is fate! This is the beginning.

Recovery motto: “One drink is too much, a thousand is not enough.” That first pack of Prizm was enough – I started looking on basketball card forums for what to buy next and on business sites looking for my childhood idol's Cool cards: Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The ritual is so intoxicating—hunting for a gorgeous and rare piece of basketball history, the tango of negotiating a fair price with an often taciturn seller, then refreshing the tracking number online and sitting by the mailbox waiting to finally get the piece. In the bag.

Basketball cards are divided into four categories: Surface, Edge, Corners, and Center. A soft corner could take the Cards from a 9.5 to an 8. The hobby is built on obsessive attention to detail—cards are handled like the brittle bones of dead saints. They are stored and displayed like reliquaries. There is something sacred about a beloved rare card, a sacred earthly reverence. People who had never set foot in an exhibition of Byzantine coins or Mesopotamian pottery gathered around the fluorescent card shop's display cases, curious about cards they had only seen in pictures, touching each other's arms in bemused awe .

When I went to teach at Bread Loaf the winter before lockdown, I brought one of my favorite cards – my signed 1971 Topps Oscar Robertson rookie. When I arrived there was no one to show it to me. I didn't plan on doing anything with it. I just love this card and knowing it's there with me, I can reach into my bag and touch it, pull it out under the light and read the stats on the back. A small and precious thing, invited and cherished.

For much of the past year, I’ve felt like I was at the mercy of an invisible mix of political, ecological, social, and psychological doom. Keeping a 53-year-old basketball card in your backpack to assuage some non-zero fears seems like an unimpeachable good thing, right? Maybe. But does it matter how much I spend on the card? Does it matter how much time I spent looking for it? Are you considering whether to buy it? Obsessed? Does the opportunity cost (financial cost and time cost) of the card matter? How should I spend this money? How do I spend that time? How many campaign posters can I purchase? How many delinquent letters have I probably dealt with?

One of the cruelest things a human being can do is to feel ashamed of another person's harmless pleasure. I worry that I keep practicing this cruel practice on myself. But I also worry that this is a way of rationalizing my own willfulness. If I devote all my attention and bank account to these cards (“invest!”), is it really harmless?



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