I love Wikipedia. Recently, while reading up on vending machines, I ran into this gem:

A newspaper vending machine . . . contains a pile of identical newspapers. A customer could open the box and take all of the newspapers . . . The success of such machines is predicated on the assumption that the customer will be honest, which is helped by the fact that having more than one newspaper is not often useful.

My Pavlovian response to that elegant formulation is euphoria. And gratitude to the anonymous vending machine buff who crafted it with so much precision. In particular, I am attracted to the phrase “not often useful”; I think I will adopt it as my own. Things happen, and now I will be prepared.

“Would you like to open a Farming Equipment, Unlimited credit card?” I will be asked, sooner or later.

“No, thank you,” I will say. “Having a Farming Equipment, Unlimited credit card is not often useful.”

Or I will be signing up for something online, and at the last minute I’ll spot a little pre-checked box with the words, “Yes, please send me daily informational e‑mails.”

Well, next time I espy one of those, I will uncheck with a flourish. “No, thank you,” I will murmur politely. “Daily informational e‑mails are not often useful.”

So much promise. So much potential. So many ways of categorizing things in the world:

Always Useful:
Car keys
Duct tape

Never Useful:
Full-scale road maps
Solar-powered flashlights
Belated comebacks

Not often useful:
Hungarian dictionaries
Pocket calendars from defunct organizations in Israel, with Yiddish instructions on how to wire your money
Degrees in water sports studies and management

To which list I can now add: more than one identical newspaper.

A family friend once told me about a vending machine that arrested his attention in Japan. This vending machine sold cans of Coke in two sizes, and both sizes were selling for the same price. He thought this must be a mistake. If you could buy either size for the same price, why would anyone take the smaller one?

But when he mentioned the broken vending machine to his Japanese colleagues, they assured him it wasn’t a mistake. The cans were supposed to be priced that way. “Why would you take a big can of Coke if you want to drink only a small amount?” Why, indeed?

More Coca-Cola than you really want to drink: not often useful.

Maybe I will write a book. It will be called Lessons from a Japanese Vending Machine, and it will be all about how we can recognize the things we don’t really need or even want (in tidy best-seller-speak, “N.O.U.”), and live so much more happily without them. It will be full of both diagrams and cartoons.

I didn’t intend to discover all of this insight into our universe this morning. I was just surfing around while I waited for my friend to answer her phone. It is astonishing, how much one can surf before the beep startles one into recording a voice message, how much progress one can make on one’s newly hatched book.

This raises the possibility that maybe it is the stuff that seems “not often useful” that can turn out to be the most useful after all.

Is my book doomed? No, I will just rapidly revise it.

My revised book will be about how we can look at what has happened to us, at the random stuff that has landed in our lives, and instead of getting googly-eyed with woe, or even just amused, find the real reason why we are in this life story and not some other one.

The title will be: Usefulness Explored. The cover illustration will be of a chicken pecking in the dust and uncovering diamonds, to his wizened surprise.

The book signings will be held at—actually, signed books will be made available by vending machine. I will be busy managing a water sports facility in Hungary.